Malawi quietly making headway with National Peace Architecture

Malawi has quietly progressed in developing its formal National Peace Architecture (NPA). The NPA’s pilot structures stand Malawi in good stead to handle potential regional contagion effects deriving from instability in northern Mozambique.

ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
Photo: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty Images

While international attention has been fixated on the violent extremism in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, and rightly so, owing to the threats posed to local communities there and foreign direct investment in the whole of Southern Africa, neighbouring Malawi has quietly progressed in developing its formal National Peace Architecture (NPA). The NPA’s pilot structures stand Malawi in good stead to handle potential regional contagion effects deriving from instability in northern Mozambique.

A lengthy multi-stakeholder consultation process, steered by Malawians and supported by the UNDP, culminated in the design of an inclusive National Peace Policy (NPP), which was adopted by the government in 2017

Malawi prides itself on ‘being among a handful of proactive countries that are leading in building national institutions or mechanisms for prevention, management and resolution of conflicts at community and national levels.’ Significantly, the nationally owned drive to create the NPA for Malawi sprouted from chilling violence, namely the July 2011 deadly clashes between the country’s police and civilians protesting against political oppression and socio-economic deterioration, which claimed the lives of at least 19 people. The violence was a major manifestation of the shortcomings and failures of existing state and non-state infrastructures for peace (I4P). The government’s security cluster and human rights body on the one hand and civil society and religious institutions on the other, failed to proactively and collaboratively resolve simmering tensions. There was a toxic environment and relationship between the state and civil society organisations, which masterminded the anti-government protests.

Consequently, President Bingu wa Mutharika’s government sought the support of the United Nations (UN), whose preventive diplomacy and facilitation of national dialogue helped ease political tensions. The UN intervention kept the hostile Malawian stakeholders from escalating tensions. Although it did not resolve the underlying issues that triggered the July 2011 violence it identified holes at the centre of Malawi’s peacebuilding. Specifically, according to the UN, there was consensus that the efforts of state and non-state I4P were ‘hampered by two main challenges, namely lack of enabling legislation and absence of a national peace architecture that promotes pro-active rather than reactive conflict management in the country.’

Subsequently, a lengthy multi-stakeholder consultation process, steered by Malawians and supported by the UNDP, culminated in the design of an inclusive National Peace Policy (NPP), which was adopted by the government in 2017. The NPP is fundamentally a framework for structural conflict prevention, peacebuilding and conflict transformation that fosters collaborative partnerships between the state, civil society and other actors for sustainable peace and unity. The NPP promotes the multidimensional concept of Positive Peace and identifies some compounding structural, historical and emerging threats to Malawi’s peace and unity that it seeks to address. These include conflict factors emanating from political transitions and pressures; infringements of civil liberties and political rights; pressure on socioeconomic and development rights, including the lack of political and economic opportunities for women, youth and persons with disabilities. 

The NPP, however, did not foresee externally and internally induced threats to Malawi’s security, namely terrorism and pandemics such as COVID-19 and climate and environmental risks. As already noted, Malawi borders Mozambique, and the violent extremism in Cabo Delgado can be destabilising due to refugee flow, movement of insurgent forces and radicalisation and recruitment of marginalised Malawians. Furthermore, the UN reported that the ‘COVID-19 pandemic hit Malawi in March 2020, seriously undermining the country’s prospects for development and exacerbating the already strained social and economic situation.’ The country grapples with natural disasters related to climate change and environmental risks, which threaten many rural Malawians and the agrarian economy. Notably, the NPP is not set in stone and has inbuilt monitoring, evaluation and review mechanisms to incorporate shifting conflict dynamics and new conflict risks.

The NPP is not set in stone and has inbuilt monitoring, evaluation and review mechanisms to incorporate shifting conflict dynamics and new conflict risks.

The permanent double-layered NPA envisioned by the NPP will functionally comprise the national-level Malawi Peace Commission (the Commission) and the District Peace Committees (the District Committees), which will engage collaboratively with other key stakeholders in peacebuilding. The NPP designated the Commission ‘the highest umbrella body and focal point of peace building and conflict prevention, management, resolution and transformation in Malawi’ mandated ‘to promote sustainable peace and unity in Malawi, serving as Malawi’s pillar for peace building, conflict prevention, management, resolution and transformation’. Clearly, the aim is to fill the identified void created by the absence of a standing centralised strategic institution for peacebuilding, which resulted in ad-hoc, unsustainable and uncoordinated responses to conflict situations such as the 2011 tensions. The devolved institutional arrangement provides for a vertically integrated NPA that delivers peacebuilding platforms traversing Malawian society from the national to the grassroots levels. Horizontally, the Commission should autonomously integrate its peacebuilding work with existing national state institutions. 

The ongoing process to establish the Commission confronted two interlinked challenges. Firstly, the NPP styled the Commission as ‘an independent body responsible for coordination and engagement in peace building mechanisms, decision making and implementation of the NPP.’ However, the framework further states that ‘It shall be placed in the Office of the President and Cabinet [OPC].’ Located in the OPC since its establishment in 2012, the interim NPA Secretariat, which supports the government’s collaborative efforts to establish the Commission, was moved to the newly created Ministry of Civic Education and National Unity in 2020 following President Lazarus Chakwera’s administrative reorganisation of government. All this entailed a critical dilemma regarding a proper balance between the NPA’s proximity to the executive branch of government and its operational independence from it.

Secondly, four years after the launch of the NPP, the Commission is yet to be established, as it is awaiting the enactment of enabling legislation. The UN-supported inclusive consultative process for the Malawi Peace Commission Bill has been complex and lengthy. Significantly, the legislation is in its final stages of adoption and tabling in Parliament for passage into an Act. The Bill, should it be enacted, would not only establish the Commission but also help address the abovementioned dilemma as it provides for an independent, non–partisan, impartial body. The UN is optimistic about the Commission, emphasising that it ‘should become a robust and ineradicable fabric of the Malawian society’ and is an opportunity for Malawi to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic with lasting peace.

Whereas the Commission is yet to be instituted, as a first step and a test to roll out the NPA structures nationwide, the government collaborated with the UN to establish six pilot District Committees in areas identified as a high risk for violence. The six ‘hotspot’ districts of Karonga, Kasungu, Mangochi, Salima, Nkhata Bay and Mulanje have a varied history of, among others, chieftaincy, land, electoral, political, cultural and religious based violent conflict. Significantly, two of the six District Committees, Mangochi and Mulanje, border Mozambique. The government-UN partnership has supported community-level dialogue in the two districts around the issues of violent extremism and refugees as part of proactive Joint Contingency Planning on the possible effects on border areas of the Cabo Delgado security situation.

Mozambique could well draw lessons and best practices from Malawi’s Positive Peace-inclined efforts to address holes and weaknesses in its peacebuilding mechanisms and approaches. Indeed, a recent Institute for Security Studies analysis suggests that ‘a centralised government body is needed to entrench an inter-agency approach and deliver a unified national response’ to stabilise northern Mozambique. Other South African Development Community (SADC) states without formal NPAs, should consider establishing permanent independent bodies to galvanise an existing state and non-state I4P that span across divisions and levels of society in a cohesive and coordinated manner, under a common strategy.

Gwinyayi Albert Dzinesa is an Independent Peace and Security Consultant. He recently completed a SADC Secretariat consultancy project on mapping the regional and national infrastructure for peace (I4P).

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