Progressio has been working with the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) of Lilongwe Diocese to spread awareness of what is involved in organising free, fair and non-violent elections. Development Worker Mandlekosi Mpofu from Zimbabwe has been helping CCJP organise training throughout three areas in the diocese to spread the word about how ordinary people can contribute.

Last year Malawi was one of the few African countries to have peaceful Presidential and Parliamentary elections. CCJP organised a team of monitors who helped to verify free and fair voting in 22 constituencies in Lilongwe, and this was a major contribution locally to a free and fair and publicly owned result. CCJP Director, Peter Chinoko reflected with me on the inspiration Catholic Social Teaching in the Malawian context has provided to the development of the project.

Populorum Progressio – “The development of peoples” (1967), Pope Paul’s seminal document on social justice taught us that another name for peace is development. Malawi, like a lot of countries in Africa has come out of many years of dictatorship and our people know that elections can contribute to achieving peace – and therefore the development which we all need to improve our lives. To have a free and violence free election is to build peace and development. Our recent experience has been mixed. The 1994 elections were peaceful, but the 1999 and 2004 ones were not – and led afterwards to political strife and the derailment of the development agenda. This was not good for the people and they had to combat a political atmosphere of intolerance which was harmful for the majority of the poor.

In implementing this project we are working towards the ‘common good’ in the sense that we are working with the grass roots communities through an ecumenical alliance involving the Protestant Churches, the Anglicans, the Evangelicals and the Muslims. They have selected men and women to drive the process who come from the districts and villages – it’s subsidiarity in action.  The people are excited about the project because they can smell the benefits already. The people realise very clearly that if they elect good leaders, they will prioritise their concerns and they will work for the greater good of the ordinary people of Malawi.

The whole essence of the principles of good governance are contained in Catholic Social Teaching. For Malawians, they know every election date because this is enshrined in the constitution.  The concept of what constitutes free and fair elections have been driven home here. People know that it’s a cycle that goes round and round. In this way, people look at free and fair elections as fundamental to running a democracy. The process encapsulates the people’s ‘joys and hopes, sorrows and anxieties Gaudium et Spes – “Joy and Hope” (1965), as if an election has gone badly, the people become very concerned that there will be no peace. Their anguish surfaces because they remember when elections have not been free and fair and the pain, turbulence and injustices which have flowed from that. Anyone who is a staunch member of a political party which has lost out always feels this very strongly.

At the end of the day the outcomes have a big influence on who/which part of the country will benefit most from the division of the nation’s resources – will it be equitably shared out to the four corners of Malawi, or will there be unfairness? There is a history here of benefits accruing the region from where the President hails from. The people will legitimately ask whether they are not entitled to their fair share?  There have been times when students from certain areas have not been able to access higher education – have suffered regional discrimination.  Parents have asked why should my children lose out? So the common good is therefore of paramount importance, and we need our faith leaders to be speaking out about it.

Another example of what good leaders could and should be doing is to highlight questionable development practises such as the current government run fertiliser subsidy – it seems that half of its huge budget has been spent on logistics, people who are supposed to benefit from it do not, and the material available is still overpriced. Often the people feel that the government of the day is not listening to them and are merely using their position to further their own interests. So people look at this civic education project as a chance to work for real change – change that will facilitate the election of representatives who will genuinely pioneer the aspirations of the poor – this is a real inspiration for these grass roots communities. They have to take the lead – they are ready and willing to drive the process. This gives all of us at CCJP enormous hope  – it’s a great recipe for change in our country.

The ecumenical and interfaith aspects of this project have also been impressive. We have consolidated a belief in this mass based faith community in certain fundamental values relating to economic issues. We have learned that you have to join hands to achieve something tangible in the end. If all the major faith groups are committed to this we will really make progress. Together we have major potential to succeed.  This approach also encourages objective scrutiny. Perhaps some of our own Bishops have assumed that because President Bingu is a Catholic, our community does not need to worry. But working in an interfaith coalition encourages us to be concerned about everyone’s interests and well being – not just those of our own community. We look across Malawi to ensure that the elections cover development that is happening for everybody – equitably. From our discussions with our Muslim brothers, deep, heartfelt discussions, we know they are convinced of our sincerity in our desire to build a strong base of national unity. We have all done our part – we are all contributing to this sense of communal solidarity.

We at CCJP are very committed to this project which we believe is already making an excellent contribution to democracy and good governance in Malawi. All we need are the resources to scale it up and widen its impact further around the country. After all, the Electoral Commission of Malawi has given its full backing of the programme as being the first of its kind in a democratic Malawi.

Progressio is a progressive independent charity with Catholic roots that enables poor communities to solve their own problems through support from skilled workers. And we lobby decision-makers to change policies that keep people poor.


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