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Situation Report: Malawi

16 July 2011

Earlier this week, I posted about the UK’s suspension of government budget support (aid), and someone remarked with surprise. This was not the first time a friend or colleague has shown surprise at a recent political event in Malawi; many have viewed Malawi as a democratic success story. What should be more surprising is the frequency of events across the past few months. Any one of these events may seem an outlier, but taken together, they paint a picture of a declining situation in Malawi. To recap the major events in 2011:

    • January: President Mutharika is called out in the press for lavish spending to promote his book while at the same time he refused to re-open the electoral commission, which was supposed to prepare for Local Government Elections in April.
    • February: International donors (Britain, France, Germany, Iceland, Japan, Norway and the United States) release a joint statement noting concern with declining governance in Malawi and Germany goes so far as to withhold government budget support. Participants in a peaceful protest on the fuel crisis organize in the capital, Lilongwe, only to be arrested by heavily armed police.
    • March: Lecturer Blessings Chinsinga is detained for questioning, accused of inciting protest because he discussed Arab Spring during a Political Science lecture. Chinsinga is fired, demonstrations on campus ensue (with police brutality caught on video), and the protest for academic freedom continues today as Chancellor College remains closed.
    • April: A leaked telegram from the British High Commissioner describing concern of declining governance in Malawi led to the eventual expulsion of the British High Commissioner.
    • May: The UK freezes all new aid to Malawi. It is important to note that 40% of Malawi’s budget comes from aid and the UK is the largest donor. In the same month, the re-convened electoral commission decides (under consultations with the president) to postpone the Local Government Elections that were meant to be held in April 2011 until 2014. Students and lecturers organize another protest in Zomba for academic freedom. The president delivers his state of the nation address, entitled “A Promise Delivered.”

Queue for fuel in Malawi, taken June 11, 2011

In an earlier post, I wondered if I might have been broadcasting that the sky was falling, that what I was witnessing (from afar) was just a group of elites talking about problems that don’t affect ordinary Malawians. But the issues are affecting people’s daily lives. In particular, the fuel crisis has led to shortages, long queues at filling stations (see photo above), and a recent ruling that fuel could only be pumped into vehicles (much to the dismay of maize mill operators and others that use fuel from jerrycans). The scarcity of fuel has led a group to start on Facebook where Malawians can share information about which filling stations have [which kinds of] fuel.

A related, interesting observation that came across my Twitter feed was when someone driving from Blantyre (the commercial capital, located in southern Malawi) to Lusaka (the capital of neighboring Zambia) remarked on the number of police checkpoints set up on the road:

[I used to joke that you knew when Christmas was coming because of the increase in checkpoints on the major freeway in Malawi.]

With all that is going on, what has been the response of the members of parliament (MPs) — how are the elected representatives handling the situation? On the ruling party MPs, a Malawi newspaper comic is telling:

But even opposition MPs have nothing to offer, blogs Jimmy Kainja, a Malawian lecturer currently living in the UK:

Yet we must remember that there is no trusted politician – opposition or incumbent. They are all friendly when they want your help (votes), they forget all this once in power. Let us not forget that all the MPs disregarded the massive problems Malawi is currently going through and tabled a bill to double their own salaries. The best way to deal with it is to restructure the system in order to make elected officials more accountable.

Malawian bloggers have been outspoken. Just today Kondwani Munthali compared President Bingu wa Mutharika to Machiavelli’s Prince. And, Ph.D. Candidate at Michigan State and Lecturer at Chancellor College Boni Dulani registers his support for upcoming demonstrations to be held on July 20.

The demonstrations are expected to be held across the nation:

This is to inform all Malawians that Concerned Malawians and various stakeholders have organised peaceful demonstrations to take place on 20th July 2011 in all the regions of the country.

The peaceful demonstrations have been organized as part of our constitutional right to express alarm regarding the current economic and democratic crises facing Malawi, with the aim of calling for an end to the current poor economic and democratic governance being advanced by the current administration.

These demonstrations are the first phase towards the grand mass demonstrations set for 17th August 2011 national wide.

Nyasa Times (an opposition, online news agency) has reported that there are threats of violence against July 20 demonstration participants from pro-government groups.

Taking stock of 2011 (and these are just the highlights) makes it hard to characterize the situation in Malawi as anything other than one of declining governance. So why is it still surprising when I blog/tweet about each of these events?

14 Comments leave one →
    • 17 July 2011 7:14 am

      I saw that link before I finalized the post and considered including it. My only concern is that the rumor is unsubstantiated (journalistic quality is not very high in Malawi, ex: ). Of course, I could see it happening. Already the rhetoric is putting Vice President Joyce Banda as a fomenter of the demonstrations.

      • 17 July 2011 11:31 am

        That’s a good point. But they’ve been trying to pin quite a few things on her already; that they might try with this one isn’t out of the question. That said, it is more in rumor/unsubstantiated territory than reality. At the moment.

  1. 17 July 2011 7:02 am

    One other thing. I can’t help but feel like the flag change also holds a place in the “big picture” you present here. I just can’t figure out exactly how. Great post, btw.

  2. 18 July 2011 10:01 am

    It has been quite interesting watching some of these events unfold on the ground. We shall see how the protests go on Wednesday, particularly up here in the North where the government seems to have almost no support.

    I liked your photo of the fuel line in Zomba but it doesn’t seem to capture the absolute chaos that ensues when the tankers actually arrive. That photo appears to have been taken of one of the lines that forms when the arrival of fuel is little more than a rumor. When there is actually petrol & diesel in the pumps, the mad jerry-can waving mob comes out and things descend rather rapidly into chaos. What amazes me, and was pointed out by a colleague as well, is that the police make no attempt at crowd control. Though there is a police office directly opposite the BP station, the cops are generally off ticketing speeding motorists and charging exorbitant amounts of money for licenses to carry just about anything larger than a chicken in your minibus. Anyways, more updates at another time.

  3. 21 July 2011 3:54 am

    Sending out prayers for all you people of Malawi. I Command your bravery. Peace should reign!


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