What is meant by independent institutions?


 Analysis by Mphatso Moses Kaufulu

In the wake of public sector epidemic criminality with private sector accomplices, a mantra grows calling for the independence of the pillar institutions of governance in Malawi, such as the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA), Malawi Police Service and others.

This independence is sought to free the said pillar institutions primarily from one other institution which, ironically, draws its legitimacy and emanates most directly from voters, namely the Presidency.

However, there is a conundrum — If pillar institutions are independent of the oversight of directly elected ones, what is the material meaning of democratic oversight? What safeguards could prevent forms of institutional independence that have ceased to serve changing national needs?

And, how would we realign independent but errant institutions back to a national vision, say, after an election?

MRA’s Msonkho House

I, thus assume, that calls for independence do not intend for institutions to plant themselves outside democratic oversight, as this would eviscerate our democratic practices including rendering our elections meaningless.

There is a need therefore for precision as to what institutional independence means in practice.

Late Robert Mugabe

In Zimbabwe, for example, under Mugabe, the state was made up of different “institutional factions” of varying independence to the presidency but deeply invested in Zimbabwe’s status quo.

When Grace Mugabe’s political ambitions became apparent, the status quo was sufficiently threatened that the fake obeisance to Mugabe of the state’s critical institutions, such as the Zimbabwe Defense Force, unraveled.

Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Swiftly, a military coup was underway, replacing Mugabe with Mnangagwa, while the plight of Zimbabwe’s people was kept off the table throughout that process.

As seen in the appalling enforced detentions and state violence leading up to the thwarted anti-corruption protests of July 31, Zimbabweans remain an afterthought in the country’s politics to this day, even as questions remain as to the extent of Mnangagwa’s power given those long-standing institutional factions.

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Surely, that is not the institutional independence we seek – an independence of robust yet rogue institutions invested in a predatory status quo.

Under Mutharika, who has much to answer for the plundering revealed, similar insidious factional politics were fledging as institutions were captured and systematically fleeced by corrupt political apparatchiks.

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Thus, by institutional independence, we mean empowered institutions which continuously maintain public confidence by adhering to their constitutional, statutory and policy mandates, while also availing themselves routinely to assessments against clear legal, administrative and policy objectives.

These appraisals would be carried out by elected representatives, other mandated and similarly transparent institutions, accountable civil society organizations, as well as an engaged and respected Malawian public.

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In sum, we are advocating for clear standards by which democratic oversight can be exercised vis-à-vis a culture of radical democratic transparency.

These are the terms to which every public institution must be held – failing which, we would be advocating for organs of state to exist outside our democratic purview.

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This would undermine our own status as an electorate from whom the authority exercised by persons and institutions to govern derives. Iterated differently, we would be championing a more deceptive form of corruption, disguised in a language of institutional independence, but divorced from meaningful democratic input from the public through other institutions or even direct mass action.

In the months of protests after the 2019 elections, we not only confronted an obstinate, politically captured MEC but also an electoral institution clad in a discourse of institutional independence intended only to obstruct oversight not just from a fiercely remonstrating public but also from two of the three pillars of the very Malawian state itself (the Judiciary and Parliament).

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Among other crucial findings, the ConCourt elucidated the procedural expectations undergirding MEC’s constitutional mandate which ensured a transparent do-over election on June 23.

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Once brought under institutional independence amenable to democratic oversight, MEC was able to deliver, and to do so in a manner inspiring public confidence. That is the independence we should be advocating for – lest we help unleash more resolute tyrannies.

Author Kaufulu

*The writer is a Womanist; a Pan-Africanist and Political Scientist who maintains a Medium blogging account where he predominantly writes about postcoloniality, race and gender. Occasionally, he also writes analyses on International Political Economyand Malawian Politics.