1992 pastoral letter, PAC and Malawi’s road to multiparty democracy

The Public Affairs Committeee (PAC) was established  in the early 1990s when the “winds of change” blew across Africa.

The winds of change had not spared Malawi.

During the Cold War, oppressive regimes were generally widespread in Southern Africa.

But the 1991 landmark Harare Declaration of Commonwealth on Good Governance – which linked external aid to good governance-spurred the political changes in Malawi, just like it did in a number of other countries in the Southern Africa region.

In Malawi, a pastoral letter issued in March 1992 by Catholic bishops pointing out the ills of the one-party system of governance under Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, heralded political liberalisation at national level.

In response to the pastoral letter and the solidarity demonstrated by the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian and other religious bodies, Malawi went into a process of political transition to multiparty democracy politics.

It was through this unprecedented process that PAC was established through which Christians and Muslims are affiliated and is considered ‘one of the oldest and most active… interfaith and interdenominational …(comprising) faith-based organizations (FBOs3) across mainstream Christian denomination (Catholic, Presbyterian and Anglican), Pentecostal groups as well as Muslims”. PAC is vocal on political issues and draws particular attention to corruption and governance.

Among its earliest tasks, PAC was instrumental in maintaining negotiations with the Presidential Committee on Dialogue (PCD)2 appointed by the then head of state, Dr. Banda.

In recent years, the role of religious organizations in transitional justice, peace and reconciliation has gained currency following political transitions and democratic consolidations in different countries.

The fact that Malawi’s economy is heavily dependent on external aid meant that the country had to pay great attention to the ethos of the Harare Declaration-which linked external aid to good governance- and the associated donor demands.

“Initial attempts to comprehensively deal with transitional justice, peace and reconciliation can be traced back to the formulation of Malawi’s democratic Constitution, a major outcome of the PAC–PCD dialogue that also created the National Compensation Tribunal (the Tribunal). Section 137 of the Constitution created the Tribunal to entertain claims of civil and criminal liability of the autocratic government that was in power between 1964 and 1994,” writes PAC executive director Mr. Robert Phiri.

The Tribunal, he recalls, was granted exclusive jurisdiction under Section 138(1) to hear and investigate all cases in the exercise of its mandate but the closure to the autocratic period was not proper, and Malawi was, also not ready to abide by the democratic principles it had adopted (Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2022).

The Malawi Human Rights Commission was also set up to deal with human rights violations.

In spite of the failures of the Tribunal, religious bodies have played a significant role in promoting transitional justice, peace and reconciliation in Malawi. Their initiatives correspond with the values espoused by the recently adopted African Union Transitional Justice Policy (AUTJP).5 The policy defines transitional justice as ‘the various policy measures and institutional mechanisms that societies, through an inclusive consultative process, adopt in order to overcome past violations, divisions and inequalities and to create conditions for both security and democratic and socio-economic transformation’ (AUTJP, Article 19).

Article 20 of the policy states that ‘rather than referencing a particular time period, transition in this policy refers to the journey of societies with legacies of violent conflicts, systemic or gross violations of human and peoples’ rights towards a state of sustainable peace, justice and democratic order’.

In the case of religious bodies through the PAC, their work fits into several interventions since the 1992 political transition.

Historical background

After attaining independence from the United Kingdom on 6 July 1964, Malawi became a one-party state under the MCP led by Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. He ruled Malawi for three decades, joining the infamous league of autocrats as one of Africa’s longest-ruling dictators.

Malawi was governed under a Lancaster House negotiated constitution, which in theory accommodated a Bill of Rights and political pluralism. However, Malawi was already a de facto one-party state by the time independence was achieved. Following the 1961 general elections, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) secured an overwhelming majority and became the dominant nationalist party.

In December 1963, after the dissolution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the country attained the status of a self-governing territory. In the polls conducted during pre-independence, all the MCP candidates were returned unopposed. The other political parties disappeared from the political scene through lack of support (Ng’ong’ola, 1996:86).

Under the one-party system, there was no freedom of expression or freedom of the press, and arrests without warrant as well as detention without trial were widely carried out. In short, Malawians were denied basic human rights (Venter, 1995). This was the beginning of the concept of preventive detention, under which a person could be indefinitely imprisoned under ministerial order, and the writ of habeas corpus would not be available to secure release (Ng’ong’ola, 1996:86).

Despite the fact that there have been no wide-reaching truth commissions, the Mwanza case6 (where some ministers were killed during the period of the one-party state) had enough political and social significance to eventually activate government action on truth and reconciliation in Malawi. However, a Commission of Inquiry that was formed had a limited mandate to the narrow issues of prosecution surrounding the case (Mutharika, 2003).

Although a debate on truth and reconciliation emerged during the transition the new governing party, the United Democratic Front (UDF), was in many respects viewed as a continuation of the old government in both style and attitude (Mutharika, 2003).

There was also a risk in establishing a truth commission, as it might have caused political instability or thwarted reconciliation efforts, particularly given that the UDF was comprised of many of the perpetrators of the old government (Mutharika, 2003:216).

Considering the monetary reward, the National Compensation Tribunal (NCT) became an attractive cake in the pursuit of transitional justice in Malawi. It focused on rewarding money at the expense of truth and reconciliation.

Politicians in high echelons were paid before the tribunal became operational.

Disclaimer: The above story is from an article titled ‘A transitional justice strategy for Malawi’ written by Mr. Robert Phiri for the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation(IJR)

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