Has President Mutharika got the word ‘sorry’ in his vocabulary?

Malawi government is finally coming to grips with the fact that it cannot do without Western help, especially the frozen British aid – at least not in the manner that it decided to let Britain’s £19 million annual budgetary support slip when there was still a chance to rescue it.

Yet President Bingu wa Mutharika remains a proud man, he will not accept that he erred by deporting the British High Commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet in April this year as a result of a leaked cable that accused the president of being “increasingly autocratic and intolerance of criticism”.

If Britain ever doubted the accuracy of the Cochrane-Dyet’s cable, then President Mutharika’s decision to declare the Commissioner a persona non grataput all the doubts to rest. But the fact is that there were no doubts about the contents of the cable in the first place, the British and indeed the donor community were already aware that democratic, civil and human rights in Malawi were in gradual decline.

Mutharika: No apologies

One of the leaked cables from whistle blowing website, Wikileaks, entitled “Democratic Norms Under Pressure” shows that declining democratic standards in Malawi was a common knowledge with diplomatic circles. The cable, categorised as confidential, from American Embassy in Lilongwe dated 22/12/2009 shows that donors were already worried about Malawi’s democratic prospects under President Mutharika, barely six months after his landslide re-election victory in 2009.

The cable summary reads: “Six months into President Bingu wa Mutharika’s second term, MALAWI’s continued development as a multiparty democracy is slowing. Once lauded as a leader dedicated to development of MALAWI’s democracy, Mutharika’s commitment to democratic norms is now coming into question. MALAWI’s parliament dominated by the president’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), offers no meaningful check on his legislative agenda. Constitutional amendments and changes to standing orders in the legislative body have passed with minimal debate. Criticism of the judiciary, as well as disregard for court decisions, is becoming more frequent. The recent legislation of warrantless searches has raised concern about civil liberties. With the backing of compliant parliament, President Mutharika’s moves show a disturbing trend line. End summary.”

Even though it is a plausible move, the way the current government efforts to regain trust from Britain have been devised shows that President Mutharika and his government are very short on details and they have greatly underestimated the extent of knowledge and amount information that the donors have on Malawi. If the Malawi government had better insight, the PR exercise by President Mutharika on BBC Africa Have Your Say (BBC AHYS) programme last week, which aimed at presenting himself as open and tolerant by taking questions from Malawians would have been moulded differently.

President Mutharika does not directly speak to Malawians in Malawi (if anything he addresses Malawians). He has never conducted a BBC-style phone-in programme on any of Malawi radio stations; seven years into his presidency, he has not attended any parliamentary session to listen to what MPs have from their people. Instead he has un-elected spokesman, Heatherwick Ntaba who speaks for him. Why did he found it appropriate to speak to Malawians via the BBC then and why now?

We can now tell that he thought this would make things easier for a delegation he had dispatched to London for talks aimed at improving the tattered relations between Malawi and Britain. The BBC interview turns out to be a disaster, in so far as its intended purpose is concerned.

First, clearly showed that Malawi was now desperate for cash. This will put Britain, which has nothing to lose anyway, in a better bargaining position. Second, President Mutharika’s admission that things went wrong but reluctant to take any responsibility is indicative of a man who has not repented. The former colonial masters have clearly played on this weakness by demanding that President Mutharika takes responsibility for expelling Fergus Cochrane-Dye if any talks with Britain are to proceed.

It is a tall order for a President who appears not to have the word “sorry” in his vocabulary. He is facing the same demands from Zambia’s new President, Michael Sata for his “embarrassing treatment” when as Zambia’s leader of opposition was deported by President Mutharika while visiting Malawi’s former President, Bakili Muluzi four years ago. Is it that time to eat the humble pie? It takes a man to say sorry after all.

Follow my tweets @jkainja

I blog at www.jimmykainja.co.uk

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