New Malawi coup plot raises suspicions

Malawi’s announcement that it had foiled a fourth coup attempt in four years is fuelling suspicions of growing government paranoia and doubts over chances for a political deal crucial to donor funding.

President Bingu wa Mutharika has won praise and billions of dollars in debt relief for driving reforms that have steered growth of about 7% a year for the past three years in the Southern African country of 12-million.

But the arrest of senior opposition figures last week over the latest suspected plot has left crisis talks between the government and opposition near collapse and worsened the political uncertainty that has dogged wa Mutharika’s four years in power.

“We seem to be increasingly guided by some illusions, or rather hallucinations,” said University of Malawi political science lecturer Boniface Dulani.

“In the process, we are making so many blunders that are sadly taking us backwards to the dark days of one-party rule.”

Among those arrested over the latest plot were three army generals, two retired senior police officers and four members of the opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) politburo.

An arrest warrant was issued for former president Bakili Muluzi, the UDF’s candidate for next year’s presidential election. He is out of the country.

“This is the fourth time we are hearing this and it is very difficult for me to believe that the same UDF was again plotting to topple government when elections are a year away,” said Yotham Wambetha, a businessman in Lilongwe.

Assassination plots

The first alleged attempt on the president’s life was in 2005 and two UDF lawmakers were arrested for treason. The case fell apart when they were charged with sedition instead.

A year later, another plot to kill wa Mutharika was foiled and again the world was told that two senior UDF members and a member of the ruling party were behind the alleged plot.

But before the case was concluded, the president appointed one of the accused to his Cabinet and acquitted the other.

The next plot involved Vice-President Cassim Chilumpha.
He was accused of hiring South African assassins to kill wa Mutharika. He is on bail and the state is yet to produce evidence against him.

Wa Mutharika’s rule has been troubled since he took office in 2004, after winning an election marred by violence and rigging accusations.

His decision to quit the UDF, the party that sponsored him as a candidate, is the root cause of an ongoing and bitter fight over a constitutional provision that stops parliamentarians quitting one party to join another.

Wa Mutharika has been in talks with the opposition to end an impasse over 70 legislators that switched to his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The crisis led to a recent five-day opposition boycott of Parliament and its temporary suspension, and threatens to again delay important debates on the country’s budget and other measures required by donors.

Squabbles overshadow growth

The economic picture looks the brightest for years in a heavily agricultural country where annual per capita GDP was estimated at $800 in purchasing power parity terms in 2007—still among the lowest in Southern Africa.

While growth in the tobacco-exporting country has held steady and is forecast by the International Monetary Fund at more than 7% this year too, inflation has eased to single digits and interest rates have fallen to 15% from 25%.

But political bickering has overshadowed those gains.

Last year it took five months for the opposition to agree to present the government’s $1,2-billion budget for fiscal 2007/08.

In a repeat of last year’s crisis, the opposition UDF and Malawi Congress Party have vowed to thwart the passage of the 2008/09 budget, due in Parliament this month, unless the speaker of Parliament removes MPs from Mutharika’s DPP.

If the opposition succeeds in getting the president’s supporters removed from Parliament, however, it would have enough support to pass a no-confidence vote in his government and impeach him. The opposition says it has no such plans.

But if there is no budget, it will put at risk donor funding on which it is heavily reliant for public funding.

“Such political uncertainties have the capacity to affect development aid in one way or another if not resolved quickly,” said a diplomat in Lilongwe.—Reuters

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