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Fifty years after independence, Malawians struggle under grinding poverty

As Malawi marks 50 years of freedom from colonial rule on Sunday, many local people say the country today is living in a new form of bondage: poverty.

At an event in the capital Lilongwe, thousands of Malawians, along with African leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, are expected to mark five decades of freedom from Britain.

Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika, who was elected as the country’s fifth leader since independence in May, will use the event to outline government plans for the fragile economy in a keynote address that also marks the 20-year anniversary of multi-party democracy.

But standing on a street corner selling bananas and local staple cassava in the chilly early hours of Sunday morning, 24-year-old Agnes Kasi said independence had not brought prosperity for most Malawians.

“Why should we celebrate 50 years of independence if the majority of us are still poor and barely survive?” she said.

“It’s meaningless to celebrate when all we need are jobs and economic empowerment. This country needs leaders who can develop it to end this poverty,” she told Agence France-Presse.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and more than half of its 15-million people live below the poverty line.

Successive leaders, including independence hero Kamuzu Banda who ruled for three decades before losing the first democratic poll in 1994, have failed to grow the agriculture-based economy.

Geoffrey Matonga, a cleric with the Pentecostal church Faith of God, argues that Malawians are not “free as long as we still depend on donors for 40% of our budget”.

“We are not free people, this donor aid enslaves us. Malawi needs capable leaders to end this poverty,” he said.

Henry Kachaje, managing director of Business Consultant Africa said that “Malawi is at a critical juncture after closing a chapter of 50 years of self-rule” and “must make a choice whether to take a different path or remain on the same path”.

Mutharika has pledged to crack down on corruption after a multimillion-dollar graft scandal under his predecessor led donors to suspend $150-million in aid since his election in May.

The former right-hand man to his brother — former president Bingu wa Mutharika, who died in office in 2012 — has also pledged to reach beyond traditional Western donors to find “new friends” in China and Russia.

Presidential spokesperson Frederick Ndala told AFP the celebrations herald the “beginning of a new generation which calls for people to sit down, reflect and project into the future”.

“We must reflect as nation where we are coming from, what we have achieved and how do you move from here,” he said.

Rights activist Billy Banda said the independence day celebrations were important to ensure Malawians look back as well as forward, and “cherish” their hard-won independence.

“It’s a pride for the nation as we give recognition for those who fought for independence. It was a good fight,” he said. – AFP

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