Institute for Security Studies (Tshwane/Pretoria)

20 March 2012

Malawi: Things Falling Apart Politically and Economically

analysis

President Bingu wa Mutharika is facing growing criticism for authoritarianism, trampling on democratic freedoms, human rights abuses and presiding over the collapse of Malawi's economy.

Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, is seen as becoming increasingly autocratic and his disagreements with the West over politics and economic policy have left the country without critical external aid from donors and the International Monetary Fund.

Several major donors cut their aid in 2011 over concerns about the infringement of democratic freedoms, economic management and governance.

Key exports - especially agricultural goods such as tobacco - are in decline, further hurting the economy, which is also seeing rapidly rising inflation, pushing higher the cost of living. In February, the finance ministry predicted a $121m budget shortfall in the current fiscal year despite austerity measures.

The present economic meltdown in Malawi has caused a severe shortage of foreign exchange, creating a thriving black market for foreign cash.

Nearly three-quarters of Malawi's population of 15.4 million people live on less than $2 a day. Mutharika has accused Western donors of funding an opposition protest movement that is challenging his regime. The president, who has coronated his brother and foreign affairs minister Peter Mutharika as heir apparent, has called on Malawians to 'step in and defend their father'.

Last Thursday the Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a religious rights group, called for the resignation of the president or for a referendum for the president to seek a fresh mandate from Malawians within 90 days or face 'civil disobedience'.

The leaders of Malawi's main churches, which have considerable standing and influence in the country, dominate the 20-year-old PAC. The PAC was instrumental in forcing the Malawi Congress Party to move Malawi from a one-party dictatorship to plural politics in the 1990s. It also played a leading role in forcing former president Bakili Muluzi to abort his crusade for the third and open terms, which Mutharika benefited from.

The PAC's call the latest in a series of ultimatums for Mutharika to step down. The calls for the president to resign have dented his image and exacerbated popular discontent.

In reaction, Information Minister Patricia Kaliati warned that the government will not 'stay idle while people drag this country into chaos and anarchy. We have an elected government in this country. Inciting people to rise against government is against principles of democracy' at a press conference.

Mutharika's regime has in the past demonstrated its readiness to deploy the country's security forces to thwart popular demonstrations and disrupt opposition rallies. On Sunday the police tear-gassed and assaulted opposition supporters as opposition presidential aspirant Atupele Muluzi, the son of former Malawian president Bakili Muluzi, tried to address a gathering. Police say Muluzi did not have permission to hold the meeting, but Muluzi says he did. Angry Malawians, however, responded by attacking a police station, beating up officers and looting their houses.

In July last year, 19 people were killed in a police crackdown to quell protests over deteriorating political and economic conditions. Last year, discussions of the Arab Spring in Malawi resulted in lecturers being fired and the closure of Chancellor College for about a semester.

There has been arbitrary arrest of prominent anti-government activists such as John Kapito, chairs of the state-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) and former attorney general, lawyer cum human rights campaigner, Ralph Kasambara.

While it remains to be seen how Mutharika responds to the latest ultimatum for him to step down the signs are that he will not quit voluntarily without a fight. It also remains to be seen what SADC's response will be in the case of 'civil disobedience', given that the regional body placed Malawi on the summit agenda following the bloody repression of July 2011. The country will soon be in the international spotlight as it is scheduled to host the AU Summit at which the continental body's Chairperson will be elected in July this year.

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