New Internationalist

Malawi

Issue 362

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Malawi

In July this year President Bakili Muluzi granted the executive of the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM) an audience at his private residence. Teachers were poorly trained, poorly paid and many never got the opportunity of promotion, they complained. Morale was low. Muluzi responded with a presidential directive: that the entire TUM executive themselves be promoted. Morale, it was reported, improved – at least among the executive.

It is nine years since Muluzi won Malawi’s first democratic election, displacing the self-styled President for Life, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, and instituting a new regime of civil liberties and free primary education.

For 30 years Banda, the ‘Lion of Malawi’, had run an autocratic, repressive and paternalistic regime that appeased both the US with its anti-communism and South Africa with its tolerance of apartheid. In the early 1990s Banda, by then himself in his nineties, faced growing dissent from within Malawian society – and from a more restless international commmunity no longer content to base aid on crude readings of East/West geopolitics. The President for Life bowed to the inevitable and in 1994 Bakili Muluzi rode the wave of protest to electoral success.

But Muluzi is not President for Life, and his second and final term ends with elections next year. He may have freed up Malawian society after the oppression and cruelty of the Banda regime, but he has freed it under his patronage, and he sees it as fitting that it should reward him with a (presently unconstitutional) third term. His repeated attempts to get a constitutional amendment bill through parliament have been stalled, but not foiled. Watch this space.

Even for Southern Africa, Malawi is particularly centralized and corrupt – although it commonly falls below the NGO radar and so passes unnoticed. The IMF suspended budgetary support to the tune of $47 million in 2001 because of Malawi’s failure to implement ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’ measures, and international donors treat the Government with some disdain. Muluzi openly patronizes a local football club, and has been known to distribute both cash and grain at political demonstrations.

Mikkel Ostergaard / Panos
Mikkel Ostergaard / Panos

The nadir of this kleptocratic governance was reached in late 2001. With a regional food crisis looming, and word reaching the capital that the harvest was falling dramatically short, the Government should have been able to capitalize on the extensive grain reserves that had been built up over the previous few years’ good harvests. But the grain reserves were gone.

The IMF had advised reducing them from 190,000 tons to 50,000 tons in order to curtail costs. Somebody – and no-one appears to know who – sold off the lot.

Playing the blame game further delayed the response to the looming crisis, and by the time the international community supplied food aid, rural Malawians were already experiencing the worst crisis in memory. hiv/aids infection – known as the ‘government disease’ because it comes from the city – reinforced the devastation. Nonetheless the relief effort was impressive and full-scale famine was averted.

With this year’s hungry season setting in and 20-25 per cent of the population suffering food shortages for six to nine months of each year, Malawi remains persistently on the verge of crisis. The preoccupation now is the depreciating kwacha – which fell 15 per cent in August alone – pushing up the price of imported food, fuel and fertilizer.

On the political front, the UN Development Programme is trying to build up district assemblies as a counterweight to the highly centralized national government.

Such projects may be progressive, but they can’t impose a successful democracy on an unwilling regime. Ensuring that Muluzi upholds the constitution and steps down next year will help – but it will take more than that to reverse the culture of patronage and opportunism that pervades Malawian politics.

Colin Murphy

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Map of Malawi

At a glance

Leader: President Bakili Muluzi.

Economy: Gross national income (GNI) per capita $170 (Zambia $320, Canada $21,340). In these terms Malawi is currently the sixth-poorest country in the world.

Main exports: Tobacco (70%), sugar, tea, coffee.

Monetary unit: Kwacha.
The vast majority of Malawians depend on subsistence agriculture. Once a food exporter, Malawi is now a net importer: persistent drought is a factor but so too are cuts in farming subsidies and smallholders switching to cash crops like tobacco.

People: 11.8 million. People per square kilometre 126 (Britain 238).

Health: Infant mortality 114 per 1,000 live births (Zambia 112, Canada 5). Malawi has been utterly devastated by hiv/aids: by the end of 1997 a million people were hiv-positive and it is estimated this will rise to two million by 2010. At least 25 per cent of the urban workforce face death from the disease in the next 10 years.

Environment: Soil degradation and deforestation are the main problems.

Culture: Maravi (including Nyanja, Chewa, Tonga and Tumbuka) 58%; Lomwe 18%; Yao 13%; Ngoni 7%.

Language: Chewa is the official language and English is widely used. Other Bantu languages are used by the various ethnic groups.

Religion: Traditional religions are common but people also tend to belong to Christian (50%) or Muslim (20%) communities.

Sources: World Guide 2003-2004; State of the World’s Children 2003; www.worldinformation.com

Last profiled February 1991

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star ratings

income distribution INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
Some 76% of the population survive on less than $2 a day. The political élite have enriched themselves, in part through misappropriation of aid money. 1991 [image, unknown]
self-reliance

SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown]
With the economy dependent on international aid and IMF support and many people dependent on food aid during periodic crises, self-reliance is a chimera. 1991 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

position of women

POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Backbreaking work and childcare may be the lot of many, but initiatives to increase political participation may be slowly bearing fruit. 1991 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
7df60%. Introducing free primary education in 1994 meant a massive boost to numbers in school. Net primary attendance/enrolment 1995-2001 was 78%. 1991 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
literacy
FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
There is a critical press and increasingly vocal opposition and civil society, but their efforts to unseat Muluzi are undermined by patronage and corruption.
1991 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
freedom
LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown]
39 years (Zambia 42, Canada 79). Already low in 1991 at 47, hiv/aids has since sent life expectancy tumbling. 1991 [image, unknown]
life expectancy

POLITICS

NI Assessment [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Having unseated the President for Life in the first democratic elections in 1994, Muluzi now seeks to amend the constitution so that he can, effectively, become President for Life. Around him, the Cabinet is ever growing and their pockets grow ever deeper. Rev Daniel Gunya has been an outspoken and courageous advocate of an opposition parties’ coalition – taking inspiration from Kenya’s National Rainbow Coalition which came together to defeat KANU last December.


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