18 June 2012

Africa: AU Should Call Malawi's Bluff


Since the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 (renamed African Union (AU) in 2000), it was an honour to be considered to host its yearly summits of heads of state. As a result, countries vied for such honour for the prestige they conferred and exposure they avail the host, not minding the financial cost. This year, however, Malawi has declined to host the forthcoming AU summit previously scheduled to take place in Lilongwe next month because the government said it would implement a warrant to arrest President Omar el Bashir of Sudan if he set foot there for the parley. Bashir is subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In an announcement, Malawi's vice president Khumbo Kachali, reiterated that President Bashir would be arrested if he to turned up for the meeting. Malawi is a signatory, as are several African countries, to the Rome Statute that set up the ICC. Kachali said arresting Bashir would be fulfilling Malawi's international obligations.

The ICC warrant has polarized African opinion, with some supporting the intervention of Western countries to apprehend African leaders and put them before the ICC, while others would rather have them, if found culpable of any crimes, tried in Africa. When the warrant of arrest was issued against the Sudanese president in 2009, the first sitting head of state to be indicted by the ICC, the AU, citing absence of convincing evidence, kicked against it, accusing the ICC of targeting African leaders for prosecution and persecution and urging African states not to cooperate with the ICC's ruling.

The AU argued that arraigning Bashir at the ICC would jeopardize its attempts at brokering peace not only in Darfur but also between north and south Sudan. Since then Bashir has visited a number of African countries that are also ICC signatories. Bashir visited Malawi as recently as October last year to attend a meeting of the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) when late Bingu Wa Mutharika was president.

Attempts by the AU to persuade Malawi to rescind its decision failed, forcing it to change the venue of the summit to Addis Ababa. The reason given for Malawi's decision was because the new Malawi president, Joyce Banda was keen to re-engage with the international community, particularly Malawi's principal donors, Britain, the US, IMF and World Bank.

Wa Mutharika's relationship with the donors soured when the West denounced his government's human rights record and cut off all but essential humanitarian aid to the country. For a country that depends on 40 per cent of its budget on financial aid from donors, it was a serious setback resulting in the shortage of food, fuel and foreign exchange.

Economic hardships sparked riots in the major cities in 2011, resulting in some fatalities. But it also precipitated efforts at efforts self-reliance.

Since her predecessor's death from heart attack, however, Mrs Banda has been trying to mend fences with Malawi's estranged donors and instituted austerity measures, including selling off expensive government property in exchange for cheaper models. The cost of hosting an AU summit may also have persuaded the Malawi government to decline hosting it.

In a surprise turnaround which has pleased the West, the Banda government has also reversed the previous Wa Mutharika's strong opposition to same-sex issues. The u-turn is deeply unpopular among Malawians.

Malawi's donor-driven decision puts the plight of poor African countries chronically dependent on foreign aid into sharper focus.

In a critique of democratization in Africa, a Malawian academic, Thandika Mkandawire, had long ago referred to many African democracies as "choiceless democracies", in which governments supposedly elected by their citizens have little wriggle room as far as policy choices in relationship with donor-countries are concerned. Malawi stands as a stark example.

Such countries tend to succumb too easily to pressures exerted by their foreign benefactors, compromising their sovereignty in the process. It is indeed unfortunate that given a choice between subsuming Malawi's national interests in an alliance with external powers and giving voice to African solidarity, the Banda government has chosen the former. There are consequences for Malawi, and the AU should not be averse at imposing them.

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