On a recent visit to the warm heart of Africa – Malawi – I had the good fortune of joining members of its law society for two days of learning, networking and relaxation in Mangochi, the beautiful site of Africa’s third largest and second deepest lake.
‘The 2018 Conference and Annual General Meeting (AGM) of Malawi Law Society (MLS) featured excellent presentations on topical issues such as reform of legal education, international framework for dispute resolution in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, access to information, commercial law reforms and the fight against financial crimes.
Highlights of the conference included the keynote address; session on access to information in Malawi; and the election of new officers for the society. In her keynote, Ms. Linda Kasonde – President of Zambia’s Law Association – admonished participants to embrace six tools required to address challenges of a 21st century lawyer – imagination, education, inclusivity, sacrifice, courage and faith.
The session of access to information in Malawi challenged government, particularly the Minister of Information, to issue a commencement date for the Access to Information legislation which received presidential assent in February 2017 but has a delayed commencement date clause. It also encouraged lawyers to explore impact litigation in the context of access to information provisions of existing legislation – for example the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Act, which requires public display of EIA reports.
The election of new officers was the climax of the conference. It was preceded by the AGM at which outgoing President, Khumbo Bonzoe Soko and his team gave an account of their one year stewardship. The AGM also provided an opportunity for members to seek clarifications and debate sundry issues with their leaders. Following the AGM, the electoral committee conducted elections into the seven offices of MLS’s executive committee. I will focus the rest of this piece on lessons from the process and outcome of the elections.
The first lesson relates to transparency. The electoral committee went to great lengths to demonstrate that it was keen to deliver on its mandate with utmost good faith. They projected the names of aspirants on screens across the venue; called for additional nominations as required by the society’s constitution; issued guidelines for voting; supervised actual voting which involved writing down names of preferred candidates on ballot papers and returning them to the electoral committee; collated and counted votes cast for every candidate in the full view of the electorate; and announced the results and winners as soon as each election was concluded.
Prior to the elections, candidates for each office had a final opportunity to sell their ideas. The electoral committee allowed 2-3 minutes for candidates to engage with their audience. I thought that was a great lesson in fostering a culture of debate and engagement between aspirants and the electorate. Sitting through the speeches, I got a sense of how well or badly each candidate might perform. The idea that candidates were required to speak – except where there was a lone candidate and members decided otherwise – meant that they had to think carefully about why they wanted to lead and how they might go about delivering on their electoral promises. This is critical in leadership.
The third and perhaps most important of my takeaways from the elections was the spirit that the candidates brought to the process. As soon as Dr. Mwiza Nkhata of Chancery College, University of Malawi was declared winner and duly elected as President, the candidate that finished second – Mr. Gift Nankhuri – immediately embraced and congratulated him. I observed similar sentiments in the elections succeeding this. Candidates recognized and submitted to the will of the majority.
Speaking for the new executive, Dr. Mwiza Nkhata offered the final lesson in inclusion. He promised to make the society as inclusive as possible. This is commendable as it marks a departure from the “winner takes all” syndrome synonymous with elections across the continent. I hope he succeeds at making every member of the society feel a sense of shared responsibility and commitment.
Over the next year, the new leadership of MLS will be tested and evaluated on the strength of its promises. In a country with a lawyer to population ratio of about 1:45,000, many Malawians will also be looking up to the Society to remain in the vanguard for advancing democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
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