Just six months after sweeping into office in disputed elections, things are not looking up for President Peter Mutharika who took up where his brother Bingu left off as leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2012.
Malawi’s economy is spiraling out of control as the currency slides with no end in sight; crime and lack of security are on the rise; teachers are not getting paid and there is a long list of problems begging for answers.
This is DPP’s third term. The first was in 2004 but through the back door. We all remember how Bingu wa Mutharika, after being elected on a United Democratic Front (UDF) ticket in 2004, had a falling out with his party’s chairperson and former president Bakili Muluzi, the guy who handpicked him as successor.
Bingu would later ditch the UDF and found DPP but had a tough time governing since a united opposition questioned his legitimacy and that of the DPP as the ruling party. His government, however, survived, thanks to a vibrant civil society and the media which railed against the opposition antics.
The Malawi leader routed the opposition in the 2009 elections and it was not long before an overconfident, chest-thumping Bingu emerged. He brooked no criticism from any quarters including Britain, Malawi main bilateral aid giver, which saw its envoy deported in a hurry. In a leaked memo to London, the diplomat had described Mutharika as autocratic.
Britain did warn of consequences if its representative was to be expelled but a cocksure Bingu refused to back down. Financial support from donors makes up about 40 percent of Malawi’s development budget. Donor concerns over economic mismanagement and a decay of human rights caused budgetary support to dry up. When Bingu suddenly dropped dead in 2012, Malawi was on the cusp of collapse.
Bingu was succeeded by his estranged deputy Joyce Banda. She tried to mend relations with donors and the severed diplomatic ties with Malawi’s colonial ruler Britain were restored. But a huge financial scandal responsible for the theft of $32 million from government coffers under Banda’s watch eroded confidence in her government.
In the May 20 election, Banda lost to the same person her former boss had wanted to succeed him at the end of his term in 2014. Bingu’s plan to be succeeded by his younger brother Peter did drive a wedge between the president and the deputy who, according to party hierarchy, was the next in line.
When he was sworn in as president six months ago, Mutharika was still answering treason charges stemming from allegations that he and other senior DPP members had plotted to circumvent the constitution and deny Banda the presidency after Bingu’s death from a heart attack in 2012. But senior DPP members who denied any wrongdoing claimed they had only engaged in thinking aloud about Banda as an outsider ascending to the presidency.
As president, Mutharika is immune from prosecution which means the treason charges against him no longer stand. The yoke was indeed removed around Mutharika’s neck but his government carries another burden which could be punishment for the sins of his brother and predecessor.
Donors have cautiously applauded efforts by the administration to bring to justice those responsible for the financial scandal known as Cashgate. Since last year, over 70 people have been arrested in connection with scandal but only two people have so far have been sent to jail. A former senior civil servant who admitted to stealing $150, 000 got three years in prison while a junior civil servant found guilty of stealing $66, 000 was hit with a nine-year sentence.
How the money was siphoned from state coffers, by politicians and those with close ties to the Banda administration, was revealed by a forensic audit by a British firm bankrolled by the British government. But donors want more. They want another examination of government books dating back to 2005. There is a method to the donors’ madness since parallels can be drawn between 2005 and 2013 when two different parties which did not win elections were in power.
Check this out: In 2005, DPP, which was formed after Bingu had abandoned UDF, did not have money. In 2013, the People’s Party, which Joyce Banda founded after she was ejected from DPP, did not have two pennies or tambalas to rub together. When the Cashgate scandal broke, DPP accused the ruling party of masterminding the siphoning of funds from the Treasury to finance Banda’s campaign war chest. And please raise your hand if you know how Bingu’s DPP financed itself.
Mutharika says Malawi today is on its own after the refusal by donors to resume aid to the poor country. He is appealing to Malawians and corporations to pay their taxes to help fund the government.
The administration knows that for it to survive, it must not lose the support of its people. To achieve that objective, it figured it was necessary that it enjoyed favorable press. But that was going to require cooperation from the media. One genius came up with the brilliant idea of padding the wallets of journalists with the equivalent of $100 after dining with Mutharika at the presidential palace! Unfortunately, some ethical journalists exposed the scheme after they received the blood money.
It is undeniable that the $150 million withheld by donors would help Malawi address some of its challenges. But the government winning the confidence of those who matter — donors and the people — includes not treating some high-profile suspects in Cashgate as sacred cows. The government should forget getting sympathy from those who matter when it secretly gives $100 each to reveling reporters inside the palace while teachers outside do not have food and are demonstrating against non-payment of their salaries.
Has the world conspired against the DPP government? Aware that Mutharika was present at the genesis of Malawi’s current problems when he counselled his brother, CounterJab has no problem entertaining the thought that this is karma’s payback!
- To fellow Counter Punchers: Nyasa Times column CounterJab will be out of commission in the next 30 days or so. During its hiatus, CounterJab will mostly engage, on the ground, those against the introduction of federalism in Malawi. Meanwhile, CounterJab wishes the DPP administration well in getting Malawi out of its worsening economic funk. Hit me up on twitter: Patrick Mwanza @counterjab