If Malawi gets change this year, it will have Joyce Banda (@DrJoyceBanda) to thank

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

In the past decade of working on Sub-Saharan African elections, people have often asked me: Why didn’t the opposition politicians in X and X country come together to build a coalition? They often wonder if there is a complex, sophisticated calculation behind the non-implementation of what is obvious common sense.

If one side is too big or is the incumbent, with access to more power, more resources and more name recognition, why don’t the opponents, who could never win by themselves, come together and mount a credible challenge?

Unfortunately, the answer is often as simple as the question: Politicians have huge egos — and egos blind people to reality.

It is often worse in countries with poor data and poorly respected media. Without any guard-rails to keep people locked in reality, many of Africa’s politicians, are free to pick what facts they choose to believe, up until the moment when the results are in, and failure stares them in the face. And even then, they can always claim the elections were rigged.

If citizens could sue opposition politicians to court for missing obvious opportunities and bone-headed decision making, our courts would not lack for defendants.

Thankfully, that is not a problem the almost 7 million people registered to vote in Malawi’s tripartite elections this year are going to face — and they have Africa’s second female president Joyce Banda to thank for that.

Last year, she returned to her country, brazenly staring down threats of a corruption trial, and made it clear she would be contesting the presidential elections. She may be a politician with baggage, no thanks to the loud ‘Cashgate’ corruption scandal, but she is a formidable candidate, with both name recall and a structure to speak of.

In 2014, with a complete new party called the People’s Party, (after she was expelled from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party for daring to have ambition), she scored an impressive 20.2 percent of the votes, beating the candidate of the well-entrenched United Democratic Front. The winner got 36.4 percent and the first runner up got 27.8 percent of the votes. She is no pushover.

But a few weeks ago, after declaring her candidacy, she took a very unusual step for African politicians, and she paid attention to reality. Seeing the massive advantage the ruling party has for what it is, she began to seriously lead talks for a coalition.

The first step was an announcement alongside a new party, the United Transformation Movement founded by the current vice president, Saulos Chilima. The February joint statement noted that both candidates had “formed an alliance” along with two of the smaller parties (there are 7 presidential candidates) to take on the ruling party, adding that “there are grounds for a united front among Malawians discontented with the sad state of affairs in this country.”

Negotiations, however, fell apart that same month. But Banda did not give up.

By March she was back, and this time she had success to speak of. Withdrawing formally from the race, she announced that she would be fully supporting the MCP’s candidate, Lazarus Chakwera. Her reason was simple according to the party’s spokesperson: No opposition candidate can win the elections alone. This coalition, it turns out, is the result of a four-year conversation since both candidates lost in 2014.

And with that one big move, all the calculations for this year’s elections are up in the air. Where it was once all but certain that the DPP would hold on to power, now Malawi has real competition on its hands.

The citizens of this country are incredibly lucky. To find politicians in our space ready to both do the maths and follow through has been a blessing that has eluded many nations, keeping them stuck with and locked into a cycle of failure and despondency by a citizenry convinced they have no choice and can do no better.

Thanks to Banda’s sacrifice, Malawi — already terribly burdened by its position as the world’s 4th poorest nation — will not have an election without hope.

“Malawi is bigger than individuals,” said the joint statement by both parties. “As such, we all have to set aside individual aspirations and embrace the greater and common good.”

Let that sweet song of real change ring loud across Africa — loud and strong in the ears of those in other nations who have refused to do right by themselves and right by those who have trusted them to do the right thing.