A-B-C to avert the Malawi January 17 demo: And no baton sticks please!

It is now as official as it will ever get, the countdown to D-Day – January 17 – has begun.

“We have agreed that the demonstrations should be held on January 17, 2013 starting from 8am in the three regions: south, centre and north.

“In the Southern Region, we are expecting to gather at ITG in Limbe and we shall walk down the highway to Blantyre Old Town where we are expecting to meet another gathering and together we shall present our petition to the District Commissioner,” one of the organizers.

The context:

Many Malawians, not only the Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA), have expressed concerns on:

1.    the flotation of the kwacha;
2.    incessant foreign and needless local travel by President Joyce Banda and government officials that Malawi can ill-afford;
3.    dilly-dallying in implementing complimentary measures to put Malawi firmly back on the road to recovery e.g. disposing of the controversial presidential jet, getting rid of posh ministerial cars and reducing the presidential convoy;
4.    increasing reports of high-level corruption worsened by a refusal to declare assets;
5.    a politically expedient bloated cabinet and;
6.    given the executive’s business as usual approach to these concerns, an increasing recurrence of executive arrogance.

Baton Stick Procurement Officers

While external travel has somewhat been curtailed, after billions were already wasted on a larger than life delegation to the United Nations General Assembly, the president is adamant on local tours.

She will, she says, continue playing “Santa Clausina” and go about distributing maize in the not-so-cost-effective manner she has chosen.

All talk but no trousers:

Way back in June 2012, President Joyce Banda hit international deadlines when she told the CNN that she would sell the presidential jet and ministerial limousines as part of the austerity measures.

An extract from President Joyce Banda’s CNN interview is below:

CNN: Talking about the austerity plan, the presidential plane has been sold, the government’s car fleet has been significantly down-sized, what other plans do you have to cut government spending?

JB: What I have said to my team is that at a point such as this, with 40% adjustment in our currency, it means that Malawians are paying the price. While that is going on, they need to see, us, the commitment on our part, particularly right at the top. The political will needs to go through this with the people, side by side.

The poor are the ones that are going to be most affected. That is why there is the austerity plan.

And so it’s not a luxury I need to have a presidential jet. I need to improve our relationships with our neighbors. It was a thing for me to do and I did it without any reservation. It’s fine. We can make that sacrifice now and in the future we shall have a plane. It’s not important.

CNN: Are you sending a message with that?

JB: I’m just sending a message to the poor, to show the people, to ordinary Malawians that we can do this together.

The link to this Video Interview is here.

Despite this impressive posturing, from June to date the executive has been wallowing in extravagance, with ministerial allowances increased by 80%, as the masses’ belts have been excruciatingly tightening with the Kwacha tumbling in a free fall beyond the induced 49%.

CAMA Pressure already showing benefits…

Now that the January 2013 demonstration organizers have proven a tough lot to dissuade, the government seems to have taken note. It has started tackling some of the issues above.

As I write, according to Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu:

1.    President Joyce Banda has this December trimmed the size of her convoy;
2.    Only this December has the government finally put on sale the presidential jet, French-made Dassault Falcon EX.
3.    Ministers’ foreign travel has also been limited to “extremely important engagements only” to be vetted by the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC);
4.    The cabinet which had initially refused to part with the Mercs has finally this December agreed that the vehicles be sold and all high-fuel consuming vehicles, be replaced with economical vehicles.

Why these expenditure cuts had to wait for six months, nobody knows. But we can safely draw one conclusion: had John Kapito and CAMA not been steadfast in demanding for action, nothing would have been done.

The bottom line is: Kapito’s firebrand active citizenship, is already influencing the much needed positive change in our leadership – regardless of what his mercenary detractors say. Kudos to Kapito!

Are the demonstrations then still necessary?

Not according to some turncoat CSO players (hoping to run for parliament on the PP ticket in 2014) and intellectuals (hoping for ambassadorial or other such appointments). The main thrust of their attack on CAMA is that CAMA must engage government in dialogue. Now let us belabour this line of thought.

Other than visibility and risking creating yet another opportunity for President Joyce Banda to remind everyone listening about the “DPP Mess”; I see very little that could be achieved by more talking.

Visibility and speeches seem to mean everything to the President Banda administration and understandably, CAMA wants none of this. Personally, I agree 101% with CAMA.

Dialogue would have been a viable option if previous engagements had borne fruit or if public rhetoric – like the CNN interview above – had been followed through with action.

IF we can hoodwink the US (via CNN) what is CAMA?

Again, government apologists are asking: what if nothing (no progress) happens after the demonstrations, then what? Personally, I find this question absurd.

How they can predict that President Joyce Banda will fail on her quest to turn around the economy of Malawi, I have no clue. Where they are getting the audacity to imply that this “iron lady” lacks political will – they have yet to tell Malawians.

This makes one think that while they urge CAMA to be patient, they themselves have massive doubts about President Joyce Banda’s ability to deliver – or worse, they want to her to fail. Hence, blocking any initiative that can catalyse her into some sort of action.

Had they been confident, they would have dared CAMA to wait until such a date for results, before staging demos. This would prove that they have confidence that, despite lopsided priorities and uncontrolled government expenditure, President Joyce Banda will deliver.

On security concerns:

The next question being asked of the demo organizers is how they will ensure security? Honestly, this question beats me. It baffles me because provision of security in Malawi has never been CAMA’s responsibility.

CAMA does not control state security organs or agents in Malawi. These are paid for by tax-payers and they are under the direct constitutional authority of the Commander-in-Chief of the Malawi Defense Force and the Malawi Police Services, who last time I checked, is the president.

Hence, anyone directing this question to CAMA needs to consult a psychiatrist.

If the demonstrations come to pass on January 17, the Commander-in-Chief of the Malawi Police Service should see to it that the demonstrators are accorded all the security they need, to enjoy their constitutional right.

Once beaten twice shy…

Once beaten twice they say, and rightly Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) Executive Director John Kapito wants proof of the expenditure reduction initiatives and is refusing to talk because there has already been too much talking.

Kapito’s reaction is that the actions are symptoms of a panic attack and deems them too little to avert strikes.

“Apparently, they behave differently from what they say. They should tell us how much money will be saved through this. The sale of the jet and fleet of the ministers’ vehicles is what we want to happen but we can’t rush to accept it without proof,” Kapito said.

To cut a long story short, President Joyce Banda has demonstrated to be irredeemably high on podium rhetoric and unacceptably short on action.

And action is all that matters. Action is all that is needed. Action is what will turn Malawi around – not podium talk and lengthy but meaningless recovery plans.

And if action is slow to come, demonstrations and threats of the same, seem to be doing the trick. In this context, why should CAMA cancel the demonstrations and waste time talking?

Other voices of reason…

I would urge Malawians to take their cue from one of the institutions looking at the demos without being emotional i.e. the Malawi Congress for Trade Unions (MCTU):

“People will look at the agenda of the demonstration, if it addresses their concerns obviously they will take to the streets to add their voice whether MCTU endorses it or not. That is why the government should address the concerns instead of waiting until the day of the demonstrations,” said MCTU president Chauluka Muwake. (MCTU will be making its position on the demos on December 30, 2012)

Now this is what I call objectivity.

The January 17 petition:

Organizers of the January 17 2013 demonstrations have identified six areas, improving which could accelerate Malawi’s economic recovery.

They demand:

  • an immediate stop of the flotation of the kwacha – to reduce the masses suffering,
  • a freeze on foreign and local travel by the President and her Vice-President Khumbo Kachali and the Cabinet as well as the sale of the presidential jet – to reduce pressure on the recurrent budget.
  • declaration of assets by the President and the Vice-President and the trimming of the Cabinet – to demonstrate executive commitment to transparency and accountability.

They also accuse government of covering up corruption. Again, let us invest time on corruption. The organizers allege that corruption is rampant in the Executive and other arms of the government.

They cited lack of transparency in the procurement of drugs and fertilizers which have been well reported on with no action.

To explain the photoshopped picture above, I can add my own: the single-sourcing of a multi-million Kwacha order to procure baton sticks undertaken by those two comrades in the pic. Blatant abuse of office that was and I, for one, will demonstrate against this, even tomorrow.

Conclusion and free advice:

Instead of critically reflecting on progress or lack thereof, the government seems only too happy to live in the past or wallow in mundane tasks while blaming everything on the mess created by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) regime under the late president Bingu wa Mutharika.

The supreme irony is that President Joyce Banda retained, and is largely maintaining the same rotten lot that helped the late president Bingu wa Mutharika to mess up, to help her cleaning up the mess.

Although they say ‘set a thief, to catch a thief’, this is pushing things a little too far. This is gambling with a nation’s future at its best.

In the context Malawi is in, this adage does not apply and on the contrary, it speaks volumes as to why despite a change at the top, nothing has intrinsically changed.

Even if Malawi were to succeed in meeting the IMF’s (ECF) demands to ensure maintenance of adequate foreign reserves for currency stabilization and a steady inflow of donor support or other capital flows complete with a flexibly managed interest rates regime; all these measures would be pointless if the President Banda administration cannot avoid deficits and foreign debt.

To avoid deficits, which increase local borrowing and foreign debt, serious and sustained expenditure control is a must. The size of the cabinet, travel and related expenditure, efficiency and cost effectiveness in service and in playing an all year round Santa Claus  – all these need to be reviewed in an environment of zero tolerance to corruption.

To the best of my understanding, this is the message CAMA wants to send across and it is my sincere hope and prayer that no “sophistication” is required to heed this.

If however “sophistication” is a challenge, then come January 17, let the marchers march and let’s see if by May 19, 2014 the voters will have forgotten about this easily avoidable demonstration.

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