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Is the sky falling? Continuing concern over governance and freedom in Malawi

16 April 2011

"malawi flag" by nchenga, shared with cc license via Flickr

Mabvuto Banda of The Nation, one of Malawi’s major daily newspapers, has reported on a leaked diplomatic telegram from the British High Commission in Lilongwe to London that raised concerns over the deteriorating situation of governance in Malawi and suggested uprisings in the Middle East as sources of Malawian government paranoia. The document is recent (dated March 2011), but followed the joint statement by international donors (Britain, France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Norway and the United States) of their concern for the decline of freedoms in Malawi.

Pressure from the international community has worked previously in human rights advocacy in Malawi (e.g., UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s visit to the country leading to a pardon of Steve and Tiwonge), which is why I am surprised that the president continues to dig in his heels in the current situation. Malawi stands to lose more now than before: donors are threatening to pull out and nearly 40% of Malawi’s budget is supported by foreign aid (not to mention that Germany has already withheld payments of budget support and the US had delayed signing a contract for $350 million to expand access to electricity, citing human rights concerns).

I posted before on the fight for academic freedom in Malawi (here and here) and on the comparisons being made between the current president and the former dictator, as have other bloggers — who have also blogged about deteriorating press freedoms (see Boni Dulani and Jimmy Kainja‘s blogs).

Much as I think academic freedom is essential in a democracy, based on the work I’ve done in Malawi, I am also concerned that a fight for academic freedom (and other rights guaranteed in Malawi’s constitution) may overshadow the everyday concerns of ordinary Malawians. I have yet to hear reports from friends in Malawi that they are concerned for their safety, or that they feel as if they are living in the times of Kamuzu (when you couldn’t even utter his name for fear that you would be reported on). That is not to say that academic freedom and human rights aren’t important – I just wonder how much I can discuss these issues without wondering if I’m claiming the sky to be falling. (On the other hand, I wonder if I don’t shout about the sky falling if things get worse and everyone will just sit back and say, “we had no idea what was going on in Malawi.”)

Below I have copied the full text of the leaked document as published at Malawi Voice and The Malawi Democrat:

1. The governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights. This despite a joint statement of concern released by donor ambassadors in February (1900/11). While this state is not exceptional by regional standards, there are two significant factors: first the negative trend is likely to continue for at least the next 3 years; second Malawi is heavily dependent on aid (30% of its budget, UK a major donor).

2. President Mutharika is becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism. In a public speech on 6 March he called for his supporters to go to the streets to fight; his critics to bring discipline in this country. In another speech, two weeks later, reported by the press as Bingu blasts donors;, he accused donors of breaching the Vienna Convention through our support to NGOs: “what is your agenda in Malawi? Both speeches have provoked action against civil society and donor heads of mission.

3. Civil society activists report a campaign of intimidation through threatening anonymous phone calls. They seem genuinely afraid. The office of one high profile activist has allegedly been raided and his house broken into. There are unsubstantiated rumours that the ruling party is forming a youth wing modelled on the Young Pioneers used as a tool of repression during the country’s three decade dictatorship.

4. For donors the local political relationship has definitely got worse (although working relations with most key ministers remain good). Some ambassadors have been summoned by the Foreign Minister for a dressing down, others (including me) have been summoned by the President’s brother for gentler delivery of the same message: stop supporting civil society to destabilise the government. We have responded robustly: we deny the accusation, our development goals require more stability not less, far more of our assistance goes through government than through NGOs.

5. There is evidence that Middle East people powerhas emboldened civil society activists and made the Government more paranoid. Police intimidation of an academic, who discussed events in the Middle East with his students, has triggered strikes and demonstrations in favour of academic freedom. In response the President announced restrictions on the freedom to hold demonstrations. Many civil society activists are decades younger than the President (aged 77) and his young brother and heir-apparent (71), with progressive views and links to NGOs abroad. Some undoubtedly have political ambitions and an interest in picking a fight with the Government (and embroiling donors).

6. A new development has seen activists taking their grievances direct to donor capitals, so far London, Brussels and UN. In the UK, on 23 March, a group of Malawians presented a petition to Parliament through Liberal Democrat MP John Leech. This called on the British Government, as one of Malawi largest donors, to condemn the Malawian Government for intimidating and harassing Malawian civil society activists, and to apply stricter conditions of good governance, democracy and human rights as a prerequisite for UK aid. In response the Malawian Foreign Minister has started arriving unannounced in donor capitals; in Brussels last week, New York (UN) and Washington this week; demanding an audience at a senior level to explain her Government’s position.


7. Given our huge investment in Malawi development, the UK interest is for these tensions to be defused. Our leverage is limited and must be used carefully with this combative President. We want the Government to reverse its two-year slide on governance issues, mend fences with faith groups and civil society, and adopt a more open approach to dissenting views. We want civil society to be less confrontational. Donors are co-ordinating and communicating these messages, e.g. DFID through the budget support group annual review in private with Government, my media interviews drawing on your speech of 22 March. But there is no reason for optimism, as the political temperature is likely to rise still further ahead of elections in 2014 when Mutharika steps down.

8. On the contrary, there is a real risk that the President vitriolic rhetoric will prompt his supporters to take unauthorised action against civil society or faith group activists (like Henry II’s knights). If activists are hurt or killed, this would call into question the Government’s eligibility for future budget support (GBS) under DFIDs underlying principles. Germany have already curtailed their GBS. The withdrawal of UK budget support could prompt others to follow. The effect of a serious cut in overseas aid for the fragile Malawian economy and for development would be serious; the 75% of Malawians who live on less than $1 per day would suffer most. The President’s brother looked thoughtful when I spelled this out to him.

9. We will of course work with whoever is best placed to deliver results. DFID’s new Operational Plan 2011-15 envisages increased funding via NGOs and the private sector, as well as continued funding via the Government.

***UPDATE 19 APR 2011***
The British High Commissioner in Malawi has been given 48 hours to leave. The opposition has condemned the expulsion.

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