The first paragraph was written in 2012, the second now in February 2014.
On talking to a local about the state of the economy, I was told that the President is in a row with the British, who have been financially supporting the country for a long time and that the British Ambassador has upset the President and now there is a major tiff, with the Brits pulling all support apart from basic aid. The Europeans have done the same thing and I think also the Americans. The IMF is telling the country to devalue their currency, but they are refusing to do so and they have this idea that they can live within their means. However, it is grinding the country to a halt. The judiciary have been on strike for 3 weeks and there were riots in Mzuzu in the north by students, complaining of student fees and stationary prices. An opposition politician and lawyer, who was released from prison and then paraded the streets in a yellow Mini Cooper was subsequently arrested again two hours later, with demonstrations outside the prison where he was held. No one really knows why he was arrested again, but the original arrest of him and 6 colleagues was for the assault of some people who were trying to assassinate him by petrol bombing his office! President Bingu wa Mutharika had apparently done quite a good job in his first term, when he was part of a coalition style government, but since getting a large majority in the last election has been showing signs of increasing authoritarianism. Sounds familiar. Malawi, by the way, is a country of some 14 million souls, squeezed between Zambia on the left and Mozambique and Tanzania to the right, with Lake Malawi in between. It used to be a British colony and was called Nyasaland.
Two years later and all has changed. Soon after I wrote this, the President dropped dead of a heart attack (foul play?). His Vice President Joyce Banda was meant to take over, as stated in the constitution, but she had actually been kicked out of the President’s party for disagreeing with his plans to put his brother forward as heir apparent when his term in office was up. So when he died, those in his party were apparently wondering how they could avoid letting Joyce Banda take over and were considering a kind of constitutional coup. They shipped his body to South Africa while they decided what to do, and the whole country seemingly knew nothing. At least, it was hard to get information where I was. In the end, they backed down – was it International pressure? And Joyce Banda became President and two years later is still here and preparing for elections in May. When she took over, she quickly capitulated to the demands of foreign donors and the International Monetary Fund, devalued the Kwatcha currency by 50%, floated the currency on the international exchange which has seen the currency dive and inflation rise to between 25-50% over the last two years. So everything has basically doubled in price but at least foreign currency is coming in and the black market is basically gone.
Malawi was a British colony until 1964. One of the biggest influences were Scottish presbytarians and the Malawi Presbytarian Church is one of the most important Civil Society organizations in the country. It even helped mediate between Britain and the Malawian political culture during the transition to independence. Between 1964 and 1994, Malawi was run as a dictatorship by Hastings Banda and democracy has only really between tried since 1994. Banda was somewhat benign in comparison to many African dictators but many people did die and he did not tolerate opposition. He also banned women wearing trousers but at least developed a reasonable education system, which it seems has deteriorated rapidly over the last 20 years or so. He was an ardent supporter of capitalist values and did not get on well with the new socialist leaning governments in neighboring Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. He even got white Africaners to come and design the new capital Lilongwe, the result being a disastrous sprawl that leaves many poorer people isolated in districts many miles from the center, where they can’t even afford the public transportation to get into town.
After Bingu died, apparently large amounts of cash - in dollars - was found in his house and Joyce Banda prevented his family taking it all away in large SUV’s!!. Now, two years later, a huge corruption scandal has erupted as it seems many of the most important politicians have had their finger in the pie, embezzling large amounts of the national budget for their personal use!! Malawi also has one of the most inequitable land distribution and ownership rights in the whole world, and along with Namibia tops the African table. A land reform bill has been languishing for years and so many of the poorer people working the land have no legal rights to the land they live on and rich politicians, businessmen and companies buy up huge tracks of land and can force people off the land at will. And on top of that, Monsanto, the American agricultural and biotechnology firm is slowly but surely influencing the situation here and working along with NGO’s and government in designing the “new agricultural revolution”, which means disaster most likely for poor farmers.
Joyce Banda seems to spend most of her time performing ceremonies and meeting local dignitaries. She is often seen on the local TV, Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (equivalent to our BBC in the UK and just as obsequious in its parroting of Government line). In fact, here in Malawi, the ruling party, whichever one it is, sees the MBC as its personal station and every party has abused this for its own agenda. Banda has towed a very cautious line it seems so far, and so it will be interesting if she gets back into power this May when elections are due. The custom has been for the main party to try and buy elections by doling our favors to local chiefs, including money, fertilizer, bags of grain etc as a way of courting favor and swinging votes their way. Sounds rather like the United States!