Protest movement in Malawi – can the people rid themselves of the corrupt, paranoid and greedy Bingu wa Mutharika?

18 dead and 41 injured in last week's protest demanding that Bingu wa Mutharika should stand down. The people of Malawi have ample reason for grievance
Stuart Weir
1 August 2011

“I'm sitting in a solitary room worried about my home and my family. I hear that the ‘Panga Boyz’ are prowling around looking for us activists. I hear that the VP’s been arrested. I hear that warrants have been issued for [three comrades] - with more to follow shortly and I wonder how this is all going to turn out when the chips are down. Will the people we fought for, now stand up and fight for us? That's the litmus test - is it not?”

Malawi is a small and far-away country with a people of whom we hear almost nothing. It is also a former colony and a very poor country in sub-Sahara Africa in which the Department for International Development has quite properly invested over recent years.

Last week the people rose up in a two-day protest against the corrupt and incompetent rule of president Bingu wa Mutharika.  Protesters demanded that he should stand down and ransacked his party’s offices in a northern town. The protest, killings and injuries have been only fitfully reported in the UK media. At least 18 people were killed and 41 people were injured, many of whom were shot by the state police. 

Many more who have spoken up against his regime now fear that they will become victims of brutal oppression. Since the protest, some 500 people have been arrested;  lawyers acting for the protesters have been charged with treason.  Mutharika has vowed to go after the protesters, reportedly saying, “Even if you hide in holes, I’ll smoke you out”. Yet some of the protest’s leaders have replied that they will come out of hiding for another protest.

The “VP” mentioned in the opening quotation is Joyce Banda, the vice-president who is at odd with Mutharika and issued statements of sympathy for the protesters.  As she said, the people in Malawi are peace-loving. But the whole population is increasingly frustrated by persistent shortages of fuel, rising prices, high unemployment, low foreign exchange reserves and hospital drugs.  Rumour in Malawi has it that Joyce Banda has “packed her bags”, awaiting arrest.

Mutharika has become a corrupt and greedy dictator who is increasingly intolerant of any criticism.  Only a few months ago he instructed the ruling DPP party youth cadres to “protect him” as a response to widespread criticism of his conduct. The instruction was followed by a public statement from DPP leaders vowing to use “all possible means” to protect their leader. Since then, some outspoken civil society leaders have been attacked or received threats creating a “culture of fear” and terror that the manifesto of the 80 CSOs that led the protest said “is becoming more visible by the day”.

The manifesto for the campaign of the civil society organisations states that Malawi is facing its worst shortages in the 47 years since independence and is being transformed from a democratic state into “an autocratic kleptocracy”. It complains of severe shortages of basic supplies, corruptions, disrespect for the rule of law and unconstitutional legislation.

Mutharika came to power in 2004 in a deal with his predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, who had served two terms as President and had been foiled by civil society and parliamentary opposition in his attempt to rewrite the constitution and serve for another term.  Mutharika, previously Muluzi’s patsy, was supposed to rule on his patron’s behalf.  But he set out on his own, combating corruption; and when he fell out with Muluzi and his party, he set up his own party which initially failed to gain a parliamentary majority.

This was a time of hope in Malawi.  The resistance to Muluzi’s designs seemed to signal a new spirit of democracy along the people.  Civil society organisations, often funded by joint  UK and US aid, were active and influential.  No one party held a majority in the Parliament so there was space for reforms.  The new President was in some sense a figure of fun, especially when he later abandoned State House, the late Hastings Banda’s opulent mansion, which was, he said, “home to evil spirits”.  Speakers and party leaders began to design constitutional changes to strengthen Parliament against the executive and formed a constitutional reform committee.

But the population did not warm to the Parliament which was disfigured by vicious factional and personal rivalries, televised angry debates and opportunistic shifts in party loyalties.  Mutharaki gradually established himself and, in the 2009 elections, he was re-elected as President and his party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), won a majority in Parliament. After the debacle of Muluzi’s attempts to force through changes to overturn the ban on standing for a third and subsequent terms, he renounced any ambition of this kind. Instead he is seeking to secure the position for his young brother Peter.  But he saw Joyce Banda, who was elected Vice-President as his running mate, as a major obstacle to this plan; and soon she became involved in a political struggle with him, as he sought to by-pass her for the forthcoming elections in 2014.  She was expelled from the DPP last December and has since formed a new party, the Peoples Party, which the registrar of political parties refuses to register. Last month the government withdrew security and reduced funding for her office. 

 Banda said last week, “As Vice-President of the country I hear the voices of the people and I relate to the issues being raised and I am sympathetic to the general plight of the people”. She said the absence of constructive and positive dialogue might have forced the civil society to resort to public demonstrations which were designed to draw government’s attention to challenges the country was currently facing.


The campaign of civil society organisations and “concerned Malawians” issued a detailed and often fierce manifesto on the first day of the protests on Wednesday, 20 July, proclaiming their “peaceful resistance” to the incompetent and poor economic and democratic governance of their country:

“In legitimate exercise of the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, We being Members of Civil Society, have joined hands with Workers, Faith Communities and Concerned Citizens from all walks of life, to hold peaceful country-wide mass demonstrations today, Wednesday, 20 July 2011, with the theme: “Uniting for Peaceful Resistance Against Poor Economic and Democratic Governance – “A Better Malawi Is Possible”. These demonstrations are part of a series of nation-wide mass actions that will continue to respond to such crises until feasible solutions have been found and implemented.”

The manifesto vividly illustrates the decadence, incompetence and arrogance of Mutharaki’s rule in shocking detail. For this reason, I am giving as full a summary of its contents as I can here. It complains of the government’s refusal to listen to advice regarding multiple catastrophes, choosing instead to engage in empty political rhetoric without providing actionable solutions or alternatives.

“Any dissenting or alternative views result in adversarial clamp downs, a practice that is unacceptable within the current democratic dispensation that we all fought hard for and are prepared to defend at all costs”.

One of the demands in the manifesto is that Mutharika should “immediately mend fences with our long-term development partners, the British government,” by apologising for his extreme reaction to a leaked High Commission cable that described him as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”. Mutharika at once expelled the UK envoy, provoked a tit-for-tat expulsion of the Malawian envoy to the UK and the suspension of substantial UK aid to Malawi. UK aid accounts for 30 per cent of the Malawian budget (or $550 million dollars over four years).  The manifesto complains about this “vivid testimony of the sheer arrogance of our leadership” in summarily terminating a relationship “that has nurtured and supported Malawi for nearly 50 years – regardless of the cost to the Nation in general and the poorest sectors of society in particular” and states: “Their contribution to our economy is too significant to shrug off with cavalier disdain.” .

The manifesto lists a series of damaging shortages: 

  • acute and escalating foreign exchange shortages; the resultant scarcity of imported products and services and other difficulties;
  • an acute fuel shortage which has reduced Malawi to a “fuel queue nation”; the impacts of fuel shortages on travel-to-work and travel generally, products and services, supermarket and grocery stocks, access to health, freight haulage. “All these are visible signs of economic regression which, if not checked immediately, could result in a total breakdown”;
  • The worst electricity shortages in 47 years, even though only 6 per cent of the population have access to electricity. The shortages disrupt industry and cost huge sums as industries instal massive generators that can soak up 3,000 litres of oil daily, as do those put in place by Paladin Energy, the Australian company that  mines uranium deposits in northern Malawi. “The recent announcement by [the electricity supplier] of power cuts for 8 hours every day for the rest of the year have only increased the sense of despair amongst the people who cannot lead normal daily lives due to fear of blackouts”;  
  • water shortages in a country “so richly endowed with water resources”, caused by the effect of the erratic power supply on the pumping of water at source; wasteful systems; and an ageing water supply infrastructure which is leaking unsustainably. The water boards, “who have been appointed through political patronage rather than merit or relevance” are unable to tackle these issues and “instead resort to hiking water tariffs again and again to cover up mounting losses. Thus the miserable consumer is forced to pay ever increasing rates for constantly declining standards in water delivery”;
  • the current administration has continued to wantonly squander public funds with unchecked profligacy and cavalier disregard for current economic hardships created by the mismanagement afflicting the populace.

From this list it goes on to list “anomalies”, among which various major issues emerge:
  • The apparently significant wealth that Mutharaki has amassed beyond the limits of his official salary in the midst evidence of “massive corruption” among a government elite “who indulge in displays of fabulous opulence”; the secret purchase by the President of a private jet costing US$13 million, an amount equivalent to annual salaries of some 5,000 nurses or 11,555 primary school teachers; a secret contract to his wife, giving her a large monthly salary (paid also in “arrears”) for her charity work – a salary that is equivalent to monthly salaries for 30 nurses or 93 primary school teachers.
  • An inflated cabinet that has risen from 29 ministers in 2004 to 41 now, running up a wage bill that would pay for 428 nurses or 1,000 primary school teachers. On this payroll are deputy minsters “who, in most cases, have been awarded positions as a reward for political favours and not on merit” and could be readily disposed of.
  • The dubious award of a huge contract for the construction and management of the Nsanje Inland Port to Mota Engil, a foreign construction company that appears to enjoy presidential favour. The same company is rumoured to have built a palace on the President’s personal estate; and has now won a concession for oil and gas drilling in the Lake of Malawi;
  • The abuse of power on behalf of a “favoured few” – e.g., the sale by the Malawi Housing Corporation of houses to selected staff, cabinet ministers, and DPP officials at grossly reduced prices, leading to a huge net loss. The Anti-Corruption Bureau appears unable to investigate further thereby giving rise to fears of an official cover up;
  • Growing disrespect for the constitution and the rule of law – e.g., an amendment to the Penal Code allowing the Minister for Information to ban publications “deemed to be contrary to the public interest”, a move that makes possible “arbitrary censorship for the independent media that is already reeling from suspension of advertisements as a form of chastisement and the imposition of VAT forcing the price of newspapers upwards beyond the reach of most ordinary Malawians”; the Civil Procedure (Suits By Or Against The Government or Public Officers) (Amendment) Bill which denies supplicants the right to instant relief when they are under threat by an action undertaken by any government agency or officer; the Police Act which empowers the police to search any house without a search warrant; the Pensions Bill which contains several grossly inequitable provisions;; the introduction of punitive monetary deposits prior to the holding of mass demonstrations; and other examples.
  • The government’s evasive conduct in avoiding holding local elections to the point at which “it is quite obvious” that it will not hold local government elections during its two terms of office, “with blatant disregard for any constitutional requirements to the contrary”;
  • The abrupt closure of the Electoral Commission amid allegations of massive fraud and its re-opening by the government without any official statement on the outcome of the investigations. New appointments will soon be made to the Commission amid fears about the quality of the candidates and the opacity of the process. “The neutrality and very integrity of the Commission may be compromised irrevocably in the public eye if the matter is not handled with extreme transparence”;
  • Growing violence and intolerance against critics and dissenters that has tacit official approval – e.g., the President’s demonisation of his Vice Presidents, thereby deliberately weakening powers which are enshrined in the Constitution and crippling the office over personal grudges, differing views and his wish to choose his own successor which he cannot do while the Vice President is in place; those who hold dissenting views, within the ruling party or without, suffer violence or adversity in one way or another; leading to reluctance amongst institutional heads and ruling party officials to offer views that may run contrary to the party line; reports of the government’s intention to mobilise “rabble rousers” to disrupt the peaceful mass demonstration which was  being organised and to arrest “so called ring leaders”.  

The manifesto ends with a series of Demands and Recommendations that the government should take. Among them are:

  • sell the Presidential jet and minimise all foreign trips by the head of state;
  • ban all importation of luxury cars. New cars for the President, ministers and state officials should reflect  Malawi’s “impoverished state”;
  • the superfluous costs of “eavesdropping” machines and similar devices being installed merely to assuage creeping paranoia in an unconstitutional manner should stop;
  • Zimbabwe should immediately repay the US$20 million that has long been outstanding for food supplied by Malawi, either in cash or in fuel;
  • scrutinise all fuel and fertiliser imports for overpricing practices and bring dishonest perpetrators to book;
  • massive fuel importers such as Paladin must use their own forex reserves to bring in their fuel and should not drain Malawi's scarce reserves;
  • fuel levies should be minimised to lower the (artificial) cost of fuel and make it more affordable for Malawians and thereby exert anti inflationary pressure on the economy;
  • allow independent importation of fuel by any entrepreneur who has the means – this will break the existing monopoly and open the market for free competition;
  • identify other source of fuel such as Zambia, which usually has excess capacity in its oil refinery which could be utilised by Malawi;
  • Paladin's exports of “yellow cake” must be checked to ensure that a fair market price is being charged and the proceeds are being brought back to Malawi without any transfer pricing;
  • gemstone exports must be monitored closely by trained experts to ensure that fair values are being declared. Malawi may have been short changed for decades in this area due to lack of capacity and negligence;
  • and much else besides.

There are also proposals for positive political and social reform, with a new Consultative Forum of all major stakeholders to analyse, debate and identify solutions to the country’s myriad problems and with the power to influence government policies and legislation.

Protesters on the streets went further. They demanded that Matharika should stand down. 

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