Malawi’s president, Peter Mutharika, is to face new elections following a unanimous decision by the country’s Constitutional Court to nullify his re-election last year.
The court has ordered that a new election be held within 150 days. “We hold that the first respondent was not duly elected as president of Malawi. As a result, we hereby order the nullification of the elections,” said Judge President Healey Potani.
There were jubilant scenes in the capital Lilongwe as youths and motorists celebrated the historic verdict. This is only the second time in Africa’s history that a judicial intervention has overturned an incumbent’s election victory (the first was in Kenya in 2017).
The five judges — who had complained of attempts to bribe them before their verdict was delivered — said that Mutharika’s victory in May 2019 was marred by serious irregularities and failed to meet various constitutional tests.
The court found that some results sheets were altered using the correction fluid Tippex, and that others had been faked or duplicated. It said that the Malawi Electoral Commission had discharged its duties with negligence and contrary to the constitution of the country.
“In every election there will be irregularities but in the present matter, it has been our finding that the irregularities were so widespread, systematic and grave that the results of the elections have been compromised and [cannot] be trusted as reflection of the votes,” said the judge president.
Potani began reading the judgment, which is more than 500 pages long, at 9am on Monday morning. At that time, Lilongwe was a ghost town, with most residents staying indoors for fear of violence. The judges themselves arrived at the court in armoured military vehicles, while air-force helicopters circled the capital for hours.
They were still reading the judgment late on Monday evening, but by then the mood of the city had changed to jubilation with youths gathered on streets to sing songs in praise of the judges and calling for Mutharika’s immediate departure.
“We thank God that the judgment has been passed. We are happy, this is what we were looking for, justice,” said opposition leader Saulos Chilima. Chilima was previously Mutharika’s vice-president, but the pair fell out before the last election. With the annulment of that result, Chilima faces the bizarre prospect of being restored to the position of vice-president until new elections can be held — before which he will have to work alongside Mutharika, who remains the president until the next vote.
Chilima’s party, the United Transformation Movement, brought the legal challenge to courts together with the other main opposition movement, the Malawi Congress Party.
Tensions in Malawi have been high ever since the disputed election, which triggered seven months of protests and the worst political crisis since the country’s return to democracy in 1994.
Timothy Mtambo, head of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) which has been at the forefront of street protests, welcomed the verdict. “Thank you Malawi, you and HRDC have been vindicated. Tomorrow we will tell you what to do next,” he wrote on Facebook. “We can no longer trust thieves to manage our country. We are bouncing back. The job is just beginning.”