Dialogue in Malawi: An assessment

By Billy Abner Mayaya* Ph.D

Although there has never been major conflict and upheaval in Malawi, when one casts a critical eye on the issue, the likelihood of major social and political discord is very high. All the ingredients for major conflict are in place. All it will take is a situation to light the powder keg.

Although logical, the skewed focus on the 2019 tripartite election as the major source of conflict, I contend that the issue is beyond this. The focus must be on curbing the incremental levels of impunity that has remained unbridled since the dawn of multiparty democracy.

Will there be handshakes this time around?

The mechanism for pointing those in power to broader and sustained compliance with the law. In this instance, there is need to revive discussion on the stalled Constitutional Review led by the Law Commission in 2007.

Most of the governance challenges stem from the lack of political will to implement the findings and recommendations of the Constitutional Review.  The aim of this brief essay is to provide the rudimentary elements of dialogue and how it can add value to mitigating the myriad complexities stalling Malawi’s democratic experiment.

Dialogue and the relationship with Malawi as a State

Dialogue is typically organized at times when the fundamental nature or survival for the government in Malawi is in question. Thus, it is usually intended as a means of redefining the relationship between the state, political actors, and society through the negotiation of a new social contract.

In such historical moments, forces demanding change and those reinforcing the status quo emerge.The government, usually at the centre of maintaining the status quo, often initiates dialogue with the aim of regaining legitimacy by controlling the negotiating process and its eventual outcomes.

Those at the forefront of demanding change, on the other hand, envisage dialogue as an opportunity for redefining the future of Malawi as a state. The decision to initiate dialogue is also often significantly influenced by bottom-up pressures for change, typically in the form of peaceful demonstrations and socio-political demands from the populace, while international and regional actors rarely initiate them.

Resistance or acceptance

The attitude and behaviour of the elites, understood as groups in society who have a disproportionate amount of political, social, and economic power compared to the rest of the society, is found to be the single most important factor influencing the chances of dialogue to reach and implement agreements.

The elite can be for or against reforms. This is exemplified by the dismal failure by the National Assembly to effect electoral reforms prior to the 2019 Tripartite Elections.

However, even actors and groups advocating for “change” are not necessarily in favour of democratic reform, as they may co-opt the process for their own partisan interests. For example, the so-called Government Non-Governmental Organisations (GONGOs) side with government policies and positions in order to fulfil their vain and selfish interests.

Elites’ support for or resistance to dialogue can manifest during different phases, including the preparation, negotiation, and implementation stages. Although the gains of dialogue have, at times, been reversed by elites after an agreement was signed, the implementation phase tends to be neglected by international actors. The process that evolved after the July 2011 demonstrations is a case in point.

Public support or frustration

Public buy-in is crucial to ensure progress in the negotiation and implementation of agreements. Yet, support for the process can decline over time if people become frustrated with delays, diminishing legitimacy, or a lack of progress.

Mass action often happens prior to the initiation of dialogue. Popular dissatisfaction with government manifests itself in large numbers of people demonstrating and advocating for change usually on the street.

In response, government feels compelled to initiate dialogue. In many cases, the timing of people showing their discontent through mass action and the elites’ response by initiating dialogue is influenced by international and regional trends. These waves of democratization often fuel demands of protesters, frequently leading to the creation of dialogue.

Inclusive dialogue

An effective national dialogue convenes a broad set of stakeholders for a deliberative process. To maximize the dialogue’s potential to address the real drivers of conflict, all key interest groups should be invited to participate, including women, youth, and other traditionally excluded groups. Before the process begins, an inclusive, transparent, and consultative preparatory phase sets the foundation for a genuine national dialogue.

The initial decisions on the shape and structure of dialogue and in particular, who is invited to participate, can be as intensely political as the dialogue itself. It is important that these preparations are undertaken carefully and transparently by a preparatory committee that is inclusive of all major groups. For instance, the inclusion of non-traditional elites allows for a more representative conversation and also may contribute to opening the political space for the participation of women, civil society, and youth.

Transparency and public participation

Even a dialogue that includes all major interest groups risks losing legitimacy if there are not sufficient opportunities for the public to remain informed about and feed into the dialogue. Beyond the delegates who are in the room, dialogue should also have mechanisms to include the broader population.

This broad participation can be achieved by linking local dialogue processes to the national dialogue, as well as through public consultations, regular outreach, and coverage in the media. Delegates can be mandated to hold consultations with the groups that they represent.

A credible convener

To secure the participation of a wide variety of stakeholder groups and to avoid perceptions of bias, a credible convener is of the utmost importance. This convener may take the form of a single person, a group of people, an organization, or a coalition of organizations.

The convener should be respected by the majority of citizens and should not have any political aspirations or goals that would present an obvious conflict of interest. Dialogue owes much of its success to the credibility of conveners. Those with long-standing moral authority and broad constituent bases are often seen as credible.

Dialogue seeks to reach agreement on key issues facing a country. Often, months or even years of pre-negotiation or consultation need to take place to identify and agree upon these issues, which could include any number of conflict-fuelling themes: national identity, political rights, basic freedoms, institutional reform, election procedures, and the structure of government. Dialogue should provide for substantive conversation around the major grievances of all key interest groups but not get bogged down in details, which are often better resolved by technical bodies or future governments.

Clear mandate and appropriately tailored structure, rules, and procedures. Dialogue takes place outside the existing institutions of government. In fact, dialogue is often convened because the sitting government and existing institutions are unable to resolve major issues at hand, either because they are seen as neither legitimate nor credible, or because they are unwilling to challenge the status quo.

Dialogue has its own set of procedures and rules for making decisions, which should be transparent and carefully tailored to the composition of the group and the nature of the issues. These procedures include mechanisms to break deadlocks if an agreement cannot be reached. (Some form of consensus decision making is often applied to ensure meaningful participation of all groups.)

Furthermore, a clear mandate lends purpose and authority to a national dialogue, whether it has been established through a peace agreement, law, presidential decree, or some other manner.

The mandate of dialogue allows delegates to make steady progress after the resolution of the conflict emanating from the volatile 2019 tripartite elections toward the following possible goals: selecting a caretaker government, approving a new constitution, establishing an electoral management body, and setting a timetable for implementing the findings and recommendations of the 2007 Constitutional Review.

Implementation

Dialogue should feature an agreed upon plan to ensure that the resulting recommendations are implemented through law, policy, or other programmes. Because dialogue takes place within a broader transition, it often has formal or informal relationships to transitional justice, constitution making, and elections. Without a clear implementation plan, dialogue risks consuming extensive time and resources without producing any tangible results.

Conclusion

It is evident that if Malawi continues to gloss over its governance obstacles, the scene will be set for major socio-political upheaval. In order to avert this perilous course, the primacy of dialogue to ascertain which issues tend to be divisive and detrimental to progress. Chief among these is the stalled Constitutional Review progress.

*Mayaya is a regular contributor to The Lamp

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