Malawi: The art of issuing threats

With general elections less than a year away it is understandable that every political group should be panicking because nothing seems certain at the moment. Personally, I am in a situation like I was ahead of the 2004 elections when I was going into an election year with no clear picture how it would go. In the last general election, just like in 1994 and 1999, I was very certain how the polls would pan out.

I don’t know whether it is because of the fact that they are in government and have been in charge for only over a year, but it is clear the People’s Party is panicking more than the other parties. No party wants to set the record of ruling for only two years and without having won an election. You get the impression that this is playing on the minds of our leaders and some of desperation that is manifesting itself is comical.

Take how the party is handling the apparent signs of economic recovery, for example. The other day we had a quarrel between government and the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) over the reduction of fuel prices. The politicians were so eager to get a positive story out that they were getting impatient when Mera officials seemed to be dragging their feet in announcing the price reduction.

Kunkuyu might be digging a hole that he may fall in later
Kunkuyu might be digging a hole that he may fall in later

That was why the party, through its deputy spokesperson Ken Msonda, issued a statement condemning the Mera leadership for its delay in announcing the reduction in fuel prices. And Msonda did not stop there. He betrayed the party’s desperation by suggesting, without any evidence, that the boss at Mera was in fact an agent of an opposition party and was, therefore, not eager to get positive news from government out.

Come the past week, we had another drop in fuel prices and you could see the effect of Msonda’s rant in that rather than Thursday night when we usually have these announcements, Mera announced this month’s price change on a Wednesday night. It could be a coincidence but one would be forgiven for suggesting that the leadership at Mera was avoiding another unsavoury exchange with politicians.

The same day we had the announcement from Mera there was a fascinating statement from Minister of Information Moses Kunkuyu who warned of unspecified “proper” measures government was prepared to take against businessmen who were not responding to the reduction in fuel prices, easing of inflation and appreciation of the kwacha against the US dollar by reducing prices of their products.

Now, it is clear that Kunkuyu is playing politics as well. First, he is trying to tell the world that government’s policies have already started bearing fruit and if you and I are not feeling the effects, it is the fault of the businesses. In that event we, the voters, will be seeing a caring government whose efforts are being sabotaged by a greedy business sector that is so showing no concern for the suffering masses.

How I wish the minister could have come out in the open to spell out the “proper penalties” his government was going to “unleash” on the companies that were not heeding the call to reduce their prices. I am interested to know these measures because last time I checked Malawi was still a liberalised market and businesses were not compelled by any authority to set particular prices for their products.

The assumption in a liberalised market is that market forces, which include the behaviour and reaction of consumers, determine the prices. The only body, therefore, in a position to “unleash” any “proper penalties” would, in my view, be the Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama) and even then, through the mobilisation of its members. I cannot think of any direct action that it can take on its own.

If I am right — and I really hope I am wrong — Kunkuyu might be digging a hole that he may fall in later. In issuing that statement, he has given everyone who heard that statement the impression that government has some powers to bring companies which are not reducing their prices in line. What will happen if those companies continue to defy the calls and maintain, or even raise even further, their prices?

I have a principle in my life and that is never to issue a threat I cannot carry out. If I tell my child that I will hit him if he does something and he goes ahead to do it, I will do as threatened (even where I was hoping that the child would take the threat seriously and not do that thing). The thing is if I do not carry out my threat I will lose my authority and the child’s respect for me will suffer a severe dent.

This is exactly the position that Kunkuyu and government have put themselves in. They should hope that some companies will act the way Mera has done and reduce their prices for fear that “proper penalties” will be “unleashed” on them. Otherwise, if companies believe the only force they should listen to is the market, we may have a situation where future threats from government are treated with contempt.

And to repeat what I said last July when we had our first reduction in fuel prices under this government: If government wants to claim credit for any apparent positive thing, I hope it will also be prepared to accept blame for everything that goes wrong. Now that we are told we have turned the corner, it no longer makes sense to blame the DPP and its leadership for any of our problems.

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