Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika has not  articulated a specific agenda for the African Union if, as  expected, he is elected the organization’s chair at the AU’s  upcoming summit in Addis Ababa.  To date, Mutharika has generally  kept a low profile on international political issues.  He appears  unlikely to pursue an active role as an international mediator on  difficult issues like Sudan, Somalia or Zimbabwe.   He has shown  little inclination or talent as a conciliator domestically.  Mutharika has shown genuine enthusiasm, on the other hand, for  development and economic issues, but has tended to oppose IMF  orthodoxy and “Western” solutions to African problems.  The  President has also expressed a keen interest in climate change, and  could potentially be helpful in urging more African countries to  associate themselves with the Copenhagen Accords.  President  Mutharika would relish his role as Chair of the African Union, but  the USG should nurture realistic expectations concerning the  quality of leadership and energy this aging, contrarian leader and  his tiny and underfunded diplomatic team will bring to the office.  End Summary.

As the Southern African Development Community’s candidate  for Chairperson of the African Union, Malawian President Bingu wa  Mutharika appears likely to be elected to the post at the upcoming  heads of state summit in Addis Ababa (ref A).   Malawi’s Ministry  of Foreign Affairs (MFA) recently expressed confidence that Malawi  has enough confirmed support around the continent to prevail over  any Libyan attempt to extend its chairmanship.  The President told  a group of donors January 18 (ref B) that he had not yet formulated  a detailed agenda for his term as head of the AU, but would instead  consult with other heads of state at the Addis summit to learn  their views.  He promised to brief the Lilongwe diplomatic corps on  his plans soon after returning from Ethiopia.


While we have no explicit pronouncements concerning  Mutharika’s vision for his possible year as Chairperson, his long  career as an international civil servant and statements outside the  AU context provide some clues as to his views.   Assuming the AU  Chair would mark the pinnacle of Mutharika’s long career as an  international civil servant.  He began his international work as a  low-level officer with the United Nations in 1966 and, after a  stint at the World Bank in the mid 1970’s, returned to the UN in  1978 as Director of Trade Development and Finance, serving both in  the United States and in Addis Ababa.  From 1991 to 1997, Mutharika  served as Secretary General of what would eventually become the  Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).    His  tenure there ended badly, with allegations of financial  mismanagement and a rumored feud with then Malawi’s then-president,  Bakili Muluzi.  Nonetheless, Mutharika would bring to the position  of AU Chair a sense that the job is a logical next step for a man  who has dedicated much of his professional life to African regional  issues and organizations.

————————-  AFRICA OLD-THINK  ————————-

Bingu, as he is known in Malawi, would also bring to the  Chairmanship a set of views on policy issues that are in many ways  a throwback to African “old-think.”  Malawi still boasts a rapidly  growing economy, but the President over the last few years has  adopted an increasingly statist perspective on major economic  issues.  He has largely crowded the private sector out of his  signature fertilizer subsidy program and set unrealistic minimum  prices for agricultural crops.  Bingu has called for Malawi’s  transformation from an importing and consuming nation to a  producing and exporting country, but his stubborn insistence on an  overvalued exchange rate and periodic hostility to foreign  investors has hampered this process.  He threw several senior  executives from U.S.-based tobacco companies out of Malawi,  purportedly because they refused to pay  the minimum prices the  President had established for the commodity.  U.S. firm Cargill  recently pulled out of the cotton sector for the same reason (ref  C).

Although foreign assistance makes up approximately 40  percent of Malawi’s national budget, the President has staked out  public positions in opposition to conventional wisdom coming from  donors, including international financial institutions.  Mutharika  has argued that none of the world fastest developing economies over  recent decades has followed the orthodox prescriptions of the IMF  and other Western donors, so why should Malawi?  In fact, the GOM  has maintained reasonable fiscal discipline since Bingu came to  power and has not taken significant steps to nationalize industries  or land, so the President’s bark has in some ways been worse than  his bite.   It would not be surprising, however, if Mutharika used  the AU Chair as a platform to project some of his more contrarian  economic notions, particularly given his own credentials as an  international economist


Food Security and climate change are two development issues  where President Mutharika has demonstrated a strong interest (ref  D).  Bingu has made food security his number one domestic priority,  and his agricultural input subsidy program has won him popularity  at home and plaudits abroad.  While the program deserves some  credit for Malawi’s recent bumper harvests, it has suffered from  mismanagement, politicization and corruption.  Consistently good  rains have had at least as much to do with the country’s recent  success as the subsidy program.  On climate change, Mutharika has  spoken frequently and passionately about the need for African  countries like Malawi both to mitigate the phenomenon and adapt to  it.  What is less clear is the GOM’s attitude toward the recent  accord struck in Copenhagen, about which the President has said  little.  Bingu is likely to blame the developed world for the  problem and push hard for as much money as possible from rich  countries, but may be persuaded to support and follow the current  process, and urge other countries in the region to do the same.

—————————————  LOW KEY ON POLITICAL ISSUES  —————————————

While he has sought out the international spotlight on  economic issues, President Mutharika has generally kept a low  profile on key African political issues including Sudan, Somalia,  Madagascar and Zimbabwe.  In the case of Zimbabwe, the President  (like many Malawians) has deep personal connections to this  neighbor.  Mutharika has a longstanding personal rapport with  Robert Mugabe, and so is highly unlikely to support any effort to  remove or condemn him.  Bingu and his brother, Justice Minister  Peter Mutharika, share a reflex, perhaps born out of their   childhood experiences with British colonialism, to resist any  attempt by foreign donors or other leaders to push their “outsider”  approaches to African challenges.

That said, Malawi has generally supported moderate SADC  positions on regional issues, and has dipped its toe into regional  peacekeeping missions, particularly MONUC, through company-size  deployments.  Plans to deploy an entire Malawian battalion to UNMIS  in Sudan and then MINURCAT in Chad fell through due primarily to  the Malawi Defense Forces’ (MDF) lack of required equipment.  The  USG has provided extensive and successful PKO training to the MDF  through the ACOTA program and has provided some PKO equipment (ref  E), but the GOM is still short some $15 million worth of equipment.  President Mutharika recently told a group of diplomats that he did  not intend to divert scarce resources from development projects to  buy peacekeeping material.  If donors want us to deploy, he  concluded, they will have to buy us what we need.  His assumption  of the AU Chair may nevertheless provide additional opportunities  to engage Bingu on this point, as well as some added motivation for Malawi to shine on the continental stage.

———————————  CHINA’S RISING PROFILE  ———————————

One foreign power with whom President Mutharika seems  happy to work is China.  As it has in other African countries,  China is assuming an increasingly prominent role in Malawi.  The  Chinese are now changing the face of Lilongwe’s Capitol Hill by  constructing the country’s imposing new Parliament building as well  as a five-star hotel and conference center.  The hotel and  conference center, as well as a new stadium in Lilongwe, are being  financed by concessional loans, not grants, but neither President  Mutharika and nor other senior officials have explained to the  public that the Malawian people will eventually get the bill for  these projects.  Some significant off-the-books assistance to  senior government and ruling party officials may be one reason for  the increasingly warm relationship.


Post has enjoyed a positive and productive relationship  with senior Malawian MFA officials over the last year or so. Malawi has supported recognition for Kosovo, as well as key human  rights resolutions concerning Iran and Burma.  At the same time, we  are concerned that the MFA’s small staff will be overwhelmed by the  increased demands of chairing the AU, and could well disappoint in  its ability to organize meetings or pursue solutions on key issues.  The Ambassador and DCM have discussed with the GOM and other donors  the need to increase the MFA’s human resources to address this  looming challenge, but have so far received only vague assurances  that the MFA and Malawian Mission in Addis Ababa will dedicate  sufficient resources to meet their new responsibilities.  When the  Ambassador discussed the issue with Justice Minister and  presidential brother Peter Mutharika, the latter’s only request was  for additional assistance to cover travel and other expenses.  The  used corporate jet the President recently purchased should prove  useful for AU-related travel within Africa, but the GOM may have to  divert resources from other accounts to fill the gas tank.    President Mutharika will relish his expected role as Chair  of the African Union, but we should all nurture realistic   LILONGWE 00000051  004 OF 004    expectations concerning the quality of leadership and energy this  aging, contrarian leader and his tiny and underfunded diplomatic  team will bring to the office.  BODDE

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