Mutharika propelling Malawi to uncertain future

LILONGWE, July 22 – If the billboards adorning its capital are anything to go by, Malawi is on the up and up, with President and self-proclaimed Economist-in-Chief Bingu wa Mutharika “propelling Malawi into the future”.

The petrol queues snaking hundreds of yards through its dusty boulevards give a very different – and far more realistic – view of the impoverished southern African nation’s prospects.They also help explain this week’s unprecedented wave of political unrest in which police and protesters fought running street battles in four cities, leaving 18 people dead in a country that bills itself the “Warm Heart of Africa”.

Malawi’s official economic growth statistics have been stellar for the last six years, but there is little to show for it on the ground, and the country’s 13 million people are fed up with being told how lucky they are.

“It’s very difficult to say to your children that things are going well when they are going to sleep at night hungry, and going to school in the morning without any shoes,” said William Sanudi, a 37-year-old curio-seller near Lilongwe’s dilapidated central Post Office.

“The economy right now is very bad.”

The debris left by Wednesday and Thursday’s rioting has quickly been cleared up, but the seething anger at Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, and his cabinet of degree-laden technocrats, shows no signs of disappearing.
For some, 2014 elections cannot come soon enough.

“2014 is too far for him, or he’ll destroy the country,” said Colby Mkupa, a civil servant sweating it out for three hours in a petrol queue. “This bunch of ‘doctors’ – they’ve completely failed.”


Such sentiment is hard to square with the official statistics about Malawi’s $5 billion economy – even those endorsed by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

For most of the years since Mutharika came to power in 2004, it has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with annual expansion near 10 percent, due mainly to a donor-funded fertiliser subsidy scheme that boosted maize harvests.

But even during the boom years, when sales of tobacco, its main export, were holding up, Malawi faced a perennial shortage of foreign exchange, putting strain on its currency, the kwacha, which is formally pegged at 150 to the dollar.

That has intensified this year as Mutharika has picked a fight with donors that have traditionally bankrolled 40 percent of the government’s budget.

First in the firing line has been Britain, Malawi’s former colonial master and its biggest benefactor, whose ambassador was kicked out over a leaked diplomatic cable that referred to Mutharika as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.


By Ed Cropley


Source: Reuters Africa newsletter


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