Between independence in 1964 and the referendum to end the one party state in 1993, Malawi was almost a stereotype of an African autocracy with a geriatric Life President, a violent youth movement which beat or killed his opponents and no real freedom of expression. But from the multiparty elections in 1994 until last year it seemed, despite one or two potholes on the path of progress, that Malawi was moving steadily down the road to greater democracy and accountability. Events of the weekend of 17 and 18 March show increasing intolerance of critics and a willingness to use the police and dubious legal means to silence them.
The election in May 2004 of Bingu wa Mutharika, a former World Bank official who had served at the United Nations Economic Commission of Africa and as Secretary General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), was broadly welcomed in Malawi and among Malawi’s major aid donors.
Mutharika succeeded to the leadership of the governing United Democratic Front after senior Malawian politicians (with evident public support) stopped President Bakili Muluzi from altering the constitution to stand for a third term. Muluzi had been elected in 1994 in the first multiparty elections and served in Life President Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s cabinet and senior party positions, but had been suspected of his own presidential ambitions and sacked and jailed by the ever watchful Banda.
Muluzi’s attempt to change the rules on presidential terms had been opposed widely in Malawi, where bad memories of Banda’s Life Presidency remained. The blocking of this move to prolong his rule ended Muluzi’s career and Mutharika became leader of the UDF and won the election. Despite arguments within his own party (leading to the formation of the Democratic Progressive Party by the current President), his first term was seen broadly as a political success and the economy grew as a result of several good harvests. Relations between the Mutharika government and donors were excellent.
Since his re-election in 2009, things have gone downhill fast. Mutharika is becoming increasingly isolated politically, has cut himself off from foreign aid, angered donors and is showing signs of ever greater autocracy with a penchant for encouraging mob violence by his party members and youth wing against political opponents and critics.
Speaking at the opening of a new road in Thyolo on 5 March, he called on his DPP cadres to “protect” him from his critics. This was reminiscent of speeches before and after the violent suppression of opposition demonstrations in July 2011 (in which 19 protestors died at the hands of the police, army and party thugs), when the president called on members of the DPP to beat up those who insulted him.
The road ceremony also had multiple echoes of the Banda era – the road was named after the president and he launched a verbal onslaught demanding support: “I must also ask one thing to all the tribes that are in Malawi, whether you are Lhomwe, Yao, Chewa ,Ngoni, Tumbuka, Nkhonde or Tonga, if someone comes to insult your father, do you just stay quiet… I want to say starting from today that I am tired of it. Those that are insulting me should stop”. He warned that he knew the opposition and civil society groups were planning demonstrations against him in March and said, “I ask the DPP in the south, east, central and north if they start demonstrations you should know what to do. Do not allow that demonstration to take place”. Immediately before pro-democracy demonstrations on 20 July last year, gangs wielding machetes drove around the commercial capital of Blantyre in DPP cars threatening people to stop them from demonstrating against the government. This action limited the protests in Blantyre, but those in Lilongwe and Mzuzu took place and were met with a brutal response, with at least 19 deaths, hundreds injured and an unknown number detained.
In the Thyolo speech and in a later radio broadcast, Mutharika accused donors of supporting and funding civil society groups and the opposition to demonstrate against him. He directly attacked donors of aid and said that, “If the donors and NGOs think this is not democracy, to hell with them. Repeat that word, to hell with them. Whichever donor wants to bring chaos in the country must leave.”
Malawi’s government has been at loggerheads with its two major donors – Britain and the United States – for nearly a year. It started with Britain freezing aid worth $550 million after a diplomatic row caused by a leaked diplomatic cable from Britain’s High Commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet that described Mutharika as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”. Mutharika expelled the High Commissioner and Britain responded with its cut in aid. Washington joined in the aid freeze after violent suppression of the demonstrations in July, suspending a $350 million project to upgrade Malawi’s electricity grid.
The aid situation has since worsened leaving a $121 million funding gap in the budget. The IMF suspended its loan programme to Malawi after disagreements with the government. In recent weeks, Mutharika has continued his war with donors, declining to see a World Bank delegation and attacking the IMF’s conditions for new loans. Malawi relies on foreign assistance for about 40 percent of its budget.
Donors have made efforts to find a way out of the impasse with Mutharika. A delegation of British MPs visited Malawi in mid-March. The head of the delegation, Malcolm Bruce, urged the president to end the dispute with the World Bank and IMF. There was no public reaction from the president to this or to the visit of the US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. After her visit she said that President Mutharika should respect his citizens’ right to freedom of expression. According to Reuters, Sherman added that, “We have urged the government to work with the IMF and the World Bank to put an economic plan in place so that they can meet their energy needs and have a strong economy into the future.”
But the omens do not look good, in his speech on national radio attacking donors, Mutharika indulged in language that was far from diplomatic, saying that his supporters should “step in and defend their father rather than just sit back and watch him take crap from donors and rights groups”.
From inside Malawi there are increasingly worrying signs of the repression of critics. In February, the former attorney-general and outspoken critic of the government, Ralph Kasambara, was reported to be under police guard in hospital following his arrest on 13 February. Kasambara, who has accused President Bingu wa Mutharika of dictatorial actions and called for his resignation, was detained after his bodyguards fought three men who had tried to attack Kasambara’s offices with petrol bombs. Criticism has also come from George Soros’s Open Society Initiative, which has warned that Malawi is now heading back down the road of dictatorship. But far from getting Mutharika to amend his ways, such criticism seems like a red rag to a bull.
Over the weekend of 17-18 March police in Lilongwe arrested John Kapito, chairman of the state-funded Malawi Human Rights Commission and executive director of the Consumers’ Association of Malawi. According to AFP, he was charged with holding foreign currency without having the necessary bank documents, but was later released. His arrest followed a call by Malawi’s respected Public Affairs Committee (PAC) for Mutharika to resign or call a referendum within 90 days.
Mutharika’s own party has split over his autocratic actions. In September last year, he carried out an unpopular cabinet reshuffle in which his wife became Minister for Women’s Affairs/HIV and Aids Policy, and his brother Peter was promoted from Education to be Minister of Foreign Affairs. He failed to reappoint the outspoken Vice-President Joyce Banda and she left the ruling Democratic Progressive Party to found her own People’s Party. Curiously, under a constitutional technicality, she remains Vice-President. The president cannot run for a third term when his current one runs out in 2014, but it is widely believed he intends to have his brother elected and to try to continue to rule through him. The repression is no doubt intended to crush any opposition to this move.
If the economy is suffering from the denial of aid and growth is being held back, then politically, Malawi also appears to be in recession, with a big dip in the democracy index. And there are no signs that president Mutharika will do anything to aid a recovery.
Keith Somerville teaches Humanitarian Communications in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and is founder and editor of the Africa – News and Analysis website (www.africajournalismtheworld.com).