'Love one another,' says Malawi's president as NGOs lay down gauntlet

Burning flashbacks: Malawians fear that next week's protests may be a repeat of the deadly 2011 riots. (AFP)

Burning flashbacks: Malawians fear that next week's protests may be a repeat of the deadly 2011 riots. (AFP)

Barely eight months into his term of office, Malawian President Peter Mutharika and his government face the wrath of the country’s nongovernmental organisations, which are set to demonstrate against what they claim is bad governance, nepotism and failure to fix a moribund economy.

A coalition of 20 leading NGOs is spearheading plans for the mass action, scheduled for January 13.

Of major concern to local observers is that 20 people died in 2011 in similar demonstrations over the economy when Mutharika’s brother, Bingu, was president.

“A dwindling state of governance, lack of separation of powers among government branches, abuse and manipulation of public resources, high cost of living, insecurity, shortage of medical drugs and incessant public sector strikes are some of the issues Malawians are concerned with,” reads a joint statement by the civil society organisations.

Happy Kayuni, an associate professor at the state-funded Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, where Mutharika is the chancellor, described the president as a failed leader.

He cited Mutharika’s inability to respond to the judiciary strike as key among his shortcomings. And two weeks ago, the Chinese embassy told Malawi that Chinese investors may be forced to relocate to neighbouring countries if the government did not take steps to improve their security.

Refund from first lady
The NGOs also want Malawi’s first lady, Gertrude Mutharika, to refund about $22?000 that they say her Beautify Malawi Trust was given by the National Aids Commission. The trust encourages good hygiene but carries out no HIV- or Aids-related activities.
Gertrude says calls for a refund are politically motivated. An international donor has suspended a grant of $700-million to the commission as a result of its controversial funding criteria.

Mutharika blames a lack of love among Malawians for the problems the country is facing. “If you take a look at what has happened with our economy, which has been riddled by the infamous Cashgate, you can surely be with me in the call for a better Malawi. We are facing all these economic hurdles because of a lack of love for one another,” Mutharika said on public television.

But a spokesperson for the NGOs said the protests will go ahead.

In the scandal that locals have dubbed Cashgate, Malawi’s graft-busting body, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, says more than $48-million vanished during former president Joyce Banda’s two-year rule and $214-million was stolen during the eight-year reign of the late former president, Bingu wa Mutharika.

But Peter Mutharika said his government is working towards a “Cashgate-free 2015”. “We have strengthened the financial system [and] we have resourced fairly well the law enforcement institutions, including the Anti-Corruption Bureau, so that they do a thorough independent job, prosecute all suspects and recover the stolen resources where possible.”

He said he is working to exercise fiscal discipline for the country without disturbing the macroeconomic fundamentals. On local television, he made an impassioned plea for Malawians to “love one another”, saying that, 50 years after achieving independence, Malawi needs to be mature about its issues.

In July 2011, after an overwhelming public turnout for the protests, the government responded heavy-handedly, with the police shooting and killing 20 civilians. Then-president Bingu labelled the dead “thieves and looters” at rallies immediately after the riots.

Mutharika said that last year, when he assumed office, was a “successful” one economically, with the kwacha stabilised and runaway inflation tamed. The Centre for Social Concern noted in October that the cost of living in Malawi remains one of the highest in Africa. Inflation for November 2014 was recorded at 24%, according to the National Statistical Office.

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