Malawi: As we scrimp!

As I write Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika is preparing to travel back to the country he is supposed to be heading – in both times of hardship as well as times of merry-making. In his infinite wisdom, however, he decided on a holiday – in South East Asia, apparently at a time when everybody else would probably think the man should be with his people as they count their curses.

Do we have a right to know where our Head of State and Government holidays?  No, according to presidential spokesman Hetherwick Ntaba. Now, fellow Malawians, if we can’t even be told where the president holidays (or is it holidayed?) would we even dare ask how much we paid for our president to holiday at a time like this when the economy is on its knees?

Ntaba would move heavens unto earth if he managed to tell the nation the cost of the just-ended “short holiday” for our Head of State and Government – otherwise we will leave it there “the president has a right to privacy and confidentiality.” Does it matter even if many folk had to leave the comforts of their homes to vote this man “entitled to his privacy and confidentiality” into public office? What we know, however, is that Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Muntharika’s holiday was taken at a time when Malawians continue to scrimp! Has he come back from this holiday any wiser? Time will tell.The first couple: Bingu and Callista Mutharika

Fuel-less nation

And as we scrimp, according to one Goodall Gondwe, it’s the “black market” (I prefer to call it the parallel market) that is paralyzing our energy sector particularly in regard to petrol and diesel supplies. My expectation was that the Minister of Energy would be bolder, positive and a bit more progressive in the face of a very groom scenario and set-up.

I vowed to colleagues that I wanted to listen to Goodall’s statement in its raw form, unfortunately with different calls of duty, I missed it. However from the bits and pieces of the statement that I have so far gathered, his statement does not appear to have gone far enough and did not show that he can be the man who will see the problem off in as short a time as possible. With Goodall Gondwe at the helm of trying to find solutions to our energy needs, we appear to be in it, I mean the energy-less-ness state, for a long haul.

While I would want to say that the parallel market has an effect on our fuel needs, I find myself disagreeing with Goodall Gondwe in making it a major part of “the problem”. In fact I further disagree with him that raising pump prices of fuel would help curtail the parallel market particularly when you consider that the commodities (petrol and diesel) are not adequately available on the formal market.

What the price hike has done, in my view, is to feed further to fattening levels, the monster that is the fuel parallel market. If Goodall does not concretely think outside the box (as he purports his prescriptions were), his hike of fuel prices will only complicate the problem further. If anything the hike should have been effected when he (and all of us) were double sure that the commodity was available on the formal market in more than abundant quantities.

The appetite to perpetuate the parallel market would have been killed in a double-kick fashion i.e. motorists would have no need to go “parallel” to the formal market and the traders on the parallel market would have been left with huge stocks, unsold.

But the way things are, Gondwe and his Board-less MERA just moved to fatten the parallel market and made it even more formidable. They will, I mean the traders on the black market, have a bigger appetite to stifle Goodall’s efforts, because the returns are huge for them. Goodall needs to wake up, taste and smell the coffee – and be bolder and more vigilant!

MP salaries

As we scrimp, Parliament, in unison has moved to hike their salaries and benefits. What a monster is the political set-up in this country. How does an MP justify his/her pay hike in the midst of this turmoil in the country? I think to say that the legislature is being insensitive is to grossly do injustice to what they really are. They are gluttonous, greedy and only driven by self aggrandizement. Politics is meant to be a service, for goodness sake!

It was in the same house that in July 2011 they approved a 7% salary hike for civil servants – yes 7% in the backdrop of another monster – the zero deficit budget! And let’s get it right, the 7% was on salaries that by manner and fashion of measures, are not good enough even to meet the basic costs of living for the large part of the civil servants. And hey, prices of goods are rising every day, the Zimbabwean style!

The MPs salary hike, if it will come to pass this time round, (MAY GOD FORBID?) will come outside the national budgetary estimates as provided for and approved by the same MPs earlier this year, July 2011 to be precise. What that means is that the tax payer (me included) will have to dig deeper to fill the already gaping hole in public finances. What sort of thinking is this? What sort of doing politics is this? What sort of approach to political and public leadership is this? Malawians, we need to come together and end this nonsensical kind of approach to discharging duties of and in public offices.

 Spy machine

As we scrimp, MACRA has moved to procure, purchase and install a machine, CIRMS they call it, that is highly viewed as intrusive to privacy and confidentiality of Malawians at a cost we can comfortably say we could ill-afford as an economy – or at least from the viewpoint of this writer. The machine, apparently, will cost the tax payer a whooping MK1.7 billion when fully paid for. Where do we get these appetites for such insensitive expenditures when viewed against the realities that Malawians are going through at the moment? Is this a sign of how government and political machineries in this country can be so callous, careless and insensitive?

As if all this was not enough, the machine appears to be of very little value when weighed against the statements that MACRA is peddling in public. It would appear the real value is only to the powers that be i.e. that they can intercept phone calls and contents of short messaging services. And not just for the sake of intercepting these but to result in some form of censorship, punishment and torture of those perceived not to be on the side of the powers that be.

It would be different if what we were dealing with were a leadership and political system that allows for democracy, dissenting views and diversity of opinion. But for a leadership so afraid even of its own shadows, the CIRMS does not appear to be a progressive investment (if at all it is an investment).

 Swimming pools

As we scrimp, the media is awash with news of expensive and largely valueless undertakings at Reserve Bank of Malawi and Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA). As to whether or not these undertakings are true (I am talking about swimming Pools here – just swimming pools) is neither here nor there – but looking at a few examples of senseless expenditures in many government circles, one would have to be forgiven for thinking that the stories may not be far from the truth.

Prices up 

As we scrimp, ladies and gentlemen, prices of goods, including basic commodities (for definition of basic commodities, ask the comical akweni, Minister of Information and Civic Education) are climbing skies and going beyond reach of many. In less than four weeks ago, we used to buy bread at about MK140 – I bought some bread yesterday – and the cost was MK190. If you have to dash in the morning for a loaf of bread at a shop close to where I stay, you have to part away with MK220.00. Do I have to give you more examples? Simply put the value of the money you have in the bank now, will not be the same at the start of business tomorrow, believe you me!

The saddest thing, in all this, is that as we scrimp there appears to be nobody going to an office, every working day, to plan and strategize on how to protect the common Malawian from the monster that is the DPP led government and the general political set-up in the country.

Oh God, Bless the land of Malawi with leadership that was/is made from HEAVEN!

* Isaac Cheke Ziba is a Lecturer – Catholic University of Malawi, Faculty of Social Sciences – but writing in his personal capacity.

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