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Malawi stakes billions for AU Summit

The cost of hosting the African Union (AU) Summit in Lilongwe this July could be more than the estimated K1 billion taxpayers are expected to cough, especially if Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir attends.

Also at stake is the new found goodwill the international community has invested in new President Joyce Banda that many hoped would help recapture Western aid, including the $350 million (about K58 billion) Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) energy grant from United States (US) and other withheld European aid.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has a warrant of arrest for the Sudanese leader for war crimes against his people.

Malawi paid a high price in both image and treasure when the Bingu wa Mutharika administration, against advice and warnings from local and international partners, hosted al-Bashir during last October’s Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) Heads of State Summit.

For example, in suspending the MCC compact for Malawi last month, Washington cited the al-Bashir visit as one of the major reasons.

The other factors were the arrests of opposition figures and human rights activists, inflammatory language from senior government officials, the July 20 killing of 20 protesters and failure to put in place economic policies to bring back on track the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-supported economic programme.

The IMF programme is a benchmark against which foreign donors, who traditionally support 40 percent of Malawi’s national budget, release aid.

By agreeing to proceed with the summit, President Banda is exposing herself to the al-Bashir risk in that if he comes and is not arrested, American taxpayers, especially through the US Congress, could pressurise the Barack Obama administration to cancel the MCC meant to help improve the country’s electricity supply.

Mindful of this risk, local analysts and opposition parties on Wednesday urged the Banda administration to tell the Sudanese to stay away.

The observers, while supportive of Capital Hill’s Tuesday announcement that Lilongwe will still host the summit, said allowing al-Bashir into Malawi would put the new administration on a collision course with the international community at a time it needs their goodwill to solve the country’s growing economic problems.

“The President has made the right decision. It is a bold and brave move. However, I should hasten to add that government should come very clearly on al-Bashir,” said Dr Mustafa Hussein, a political analyst at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in Zomba.

People’s Progressive Movement (PPM) president Mark Katsonga described the government’s decision as fair, considering that other countries are willing to assist.

Alliance for Democracy chairperson of campaign and elections committee Dan Msowoya said this time government “should do away with all the ambiguities surrounding the Sudanese President.”

Main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president John Tembo said he has no problem with Malawi going ahead to host the summit.

“By opposing it, we were taking into consideration our capacity, but if government has decided to go ahead by looking at the support from other governments, I cannot object to it,” he said.

United Democratic Front (UDF) leader in Parliament Ibrahim Matola also said apart from the pledges from other governments, the party is optimistic President Banda, a former Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister, will rally neighbouring countries to support Malawi’s decision to host the event.

A well-placed Ministry of Finance source confided to us on Wednesday that the 2011/12 supplementary budget set aside K300 million for the summit’s preparations. But the total budget for the Summit is around K980 million, most of which will be accounted for in the 2012/13 budget.

As a host country, Malawi, among other things, meet part of the costs of delegates’ air tickets, pay for various insurance needs, food, accommodation and meet internal travel costs, according to summit documents.

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