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Malawi’s unsavoury F-word list

In delivering the State of the Nation Address two weeks ago, Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika described the past year as a success. Examples were given to buttress this.

But while politicians sitting on the government bench agreed with the President, clapping hands and cheering to show their support, a contrasting atmosphere engulfed the opposition bench.

Some described it as “an empty speech.” They felt the President left out many pertinent issues that Malawians expected him to address in this very important speech. Mutharika focused on his accomplishments, yet citizens expected him to update the nation on challenges rocking the country, whose list can all begin with the letter F. Here are some of the ‘Fs’ that portray that the past year has not been a pure success.

Freedom

One area that caused stir in the past year is the word freedom. The Mutharika administration came under fire for violating some freedoms. Malawians as well as the donor community were enraged.

One of the most notable freedom violations was the Presidents order that all demonstrators should pay a fee of about K2 million (about $13 158) as security in case they damage property in the course of their demonstrations. This followed the stopping of civil society demonstrations over the scarcity of fuel by police in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.

There was also the passing of Section 46 which gave powers to the minister of Information to ban publications in the country. Then there was the longstanding and controversial academic freedom wrangle which followed the summoning of a Chancellor College lecturer by the Inspector General of Police.

These and other examples made some of the country’s donor partners such as Germany cut aid to Malawi, making citizens suffer in the process.

Fuel

The recurrent fuel shortage has also infuriated Malawians. The Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industries (MCCI) website captured the situation in one of its articles.

It reads: “Malawi has been gripped by an acute fuel shortage that has paralysed the operations of different sectors of the economy. The major reason Malawi is having this fuel shortage problem is shortage of foreign exchange capital to buy fuel energy imported through neighbouring countries.”

But according to Petroleum Importers Limited (PIL), the fuel shortage problem on the market has come due to logistical problems, inadequate foreign currency and limited stock holding capacity.

Government chose to blame Mozambique for the disaster. The Mozambican government through director Nacala port Agostinho Langa denied the accusations.

Forex

Linked to the disastrous fuel paucity has been shortage of foreign currency. A way out remains bleak.

Sought-after currencies such as the US dollar, euro and the South African rand are traded expensively on the black market while at the bank, their value is tamed, surreal.

The Nation newspaper published an article where a National Bank of Malawi (NBM) official was quoted as saying: “The biggest threat to growth prospects in 2011 remains high foreign exchange demand that has characterised the economy for the past year or so. Below par reserves positions offer little comfort and the fact that initial estimates indicate excess supply of tobacco in the 2011 auction season implies average prices of below USD2/kg.”

Farming/ Fertiliser

The challenges, especially fuel and forex, also took a toll in the agricultural sector. Poor tobacco sales failed to generate more forex as has been the past trend. Malawi’s “green gold” seems to falter.

A dry spell and, in some instances, delayed access to subsidised farm inputs affected the yields, though the national aggregate harvest is satisfactory.

Worse still, this year government has announced a cut in the amount of fertiliser for the Farm Input Subsidy Programme.

This coincides with Mutharika’s pronouncements that “donors or no donors, fertiliser subsidy will continue.”

Funding

There are fears over donors cutting or reducing aid in protest of the Mutharika administration’s poor governance record.

Government is heavily dependent on foreign aid, with donor funding normally accounting for more than 40 percent of official receipts.

Foreign trips

The Mutharika administration also came under fire for wasting the meagre resources funding the office of chairman for African Union frequent travels which often had a big entourage.

Such accusations forced the State House to issue a media statement defending the trips and the big entourage that would sometimes have as many as 100 people.

Foreign relations

The expulsion of British High Commissioner to Malawi Fergus Cochrane-Dyet divided opinions in the country and outside. It is something that the British Government and the local civil society cautioned government against, but government went ahead and sent Cochrane-Dyet packing.

Cochrane-Dyet met this fate after calling Mutharika "autocratic and intolerant" in a leaked diplomatic cable. In a tit-for-tat fashion, the British Government also sent Malawi’s acting high commissioner to Britain, Flossie Gomile-Chidyaonga, packing. The British foreign minister William Hague also said he would review Malawi/Britain bilateral relations.

Malawi’s relationship with Mozambique also reached low due to issues of navigation.

When a barge failed to dock at the Nsanje Port during inauguration of the port, Mozambique was accused of sabotaging the occasion. Government did not handle both situations with diplomacy.

Faith community

The Mutharika administration has also been at loggerheads with the faith community over differences on a number of issues. They range from the famous Pastoral Letter by the Catholics Bishops to the arresting of the Livingstonia Synod clergy.

At the centre of the heat has been the outspoken Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP, in particular, the reverends Levi Nyondo and Mezuwa Banda.

At some point, members of the faith community organised prayers to ask God to open the President’s ears and eyes so that he sees the thorny issues rocking the country.

In a separated incident, Rev. Nyondo was arrested.

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) issued a statement that said: “we, at CHRR, strongly believe that the reasons put forward by government to justify the arrest of the Reverend Nyondo are politically-motivated and aimed at intimidating all those with dissenting views against government.”

Foolish

Finally, but probably not the last F-word, is the controversial use of the word ‘stupid’, which has a similar meaning to ‘foolish’. Mutharika has come under fire for often using this word.

He has repeatedly labelled his opponents: donors; media; civil society; tobacco buyers; and opposition “stupid.” Obviously, this has not gone down well with Malawians, donors and the civil society.

This is why Malawians were surprised that the President failed to address such important concerns in the State of the Nation Address.

Should it be therefore that the final F-word be Failure?

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