Global Policy Forum

Malawi Risks Becoming “Fragile State”

Impoverished Malawi is wrought with political unrest stemming from rising prices, fuel shortages, and unemployment. Government mismanagement and rampant corruption continue to diminish economic opportunities. Recent legislation represents an assault on civil rights and centralizes control of state resources to finance the President’s patronage networks. Organized political parties are failing to respond to the needs of the people, creating a vacuum. In sum, Malawi is beginning to show all of the signs of a fragile state.

By Diana Cammack

November 17, 2011

As late as 2010, some analysts were taking the view that President Bingu wa Mutharika might be good for development in Malawi. His centralisation of power, forceful management style and agriculture-focused policies might sustain economic growth (which reached 9% in 2008) and enhance national food security and infrastructural development, as well as attract much-needed foreign investment. It has become increasingly hard to maintain that view.

Twenty people died in July, when security forces cracked down on anti-government demonstrators angry about rising prices, fuel shortages and unemployment. This is a sign of how bad things have become. Economic growth has slowed and further deceleration is predicted, with mismanagement by government cited as a principal cause. Shortages of foreign currency, fuel and electricity are becoming more severe. The political unrest, which pits government against civil society, also portends the worse than usual campaign-related violence in the runup to the 2014 elections. Worse, it could transform Malawi into a fragile state.

During protests in July, civil society leaders handed district authorities a list of 20 demands for the president to address – demands covering a range of political, social and economic problems. They believe that meeting those demands could transform this small, impoverished country. They look at three sets of complaints: about the worsening economic opportunities; about the deterioration in civil rights; and a growing list of particular political and economic abuses.

In the first group are demands concerning the availability of foreign exchange, fuel and electricity; access to training and minimum wages; a social safety net for the poorest; and "decent jobs and conditions for all workers". The second includes overturning recent laws and decrees that limit free expression, privacy, academic freedom and access to justice. The third lists alleged instances of misuse of power or of corruption, implicating the president and some ministers.

The reason why civil society organisations, rather than politicians, are championing these issues is that political parties are failing to play a significant role. The opposition is in disarray and the national assembly, dominated by Mutharika's Democratic Progressive party, functions mostly as a rubber stamp. Civil society activists have stepped into the vacuum.

After the July disturbances, they planned to take forward their campaign for reforms with two three-day "vigils". Both were postponed at the last minute because the police could not guarantee there would be no further bloodshed. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon – hoping to retain Malawi as a development success story – sent an envoy to mediate. However, the UN-sponsored dialogue between government and NGO representatives has made little headway since it began in August.

One factor in the deadlock is the president's intemperate behaviour. Periodically, he makes fiery speeches in which he threatens "war" against activists, or calls on his DPP youth cadets to "discipline" his opponents. His deportation of the British high commissioner – for writing that Mutharika is "arrogant and intolerant of criticism" in a memo to the Foreign Office that was leaked – and his dressing-down of other ambassadors have antagonised western donors who were already withdrawing funds in response to governance and rights abuses and fiscal maladministration.

Worse, since the president's threat to "smoke out" opponents, arson attacks have destroyed the offices or homes of several activists. Journalists and NGO leaders have received death threats, and a student activist was murdered after threatening to expose DPP involvement in attacks.

No easy path ahead

Tackling the 20 demands will not be easy. The country's economic infrastructure deteriorated severely under former president Bakili Muluzi, and Mutharika did well in his first term to turn the tide of de-industrialisation, macro-economic mismanagement and corruption with impunity. But his ideologically driven refusal to allow the kwacha-dollar exchange rate to adjust downwards has compounded the country's already serious shortages.

This, along with other imbalances, has sent Malawi's programme with the IMF "off-track", making it nearly impossible for donors to continue providing budget support. The collapse of the global tobacco market has reduced government revenues further. By mid-October, the country was nearly at a standstill – even as the president's spokesman continued to deny there were problems.

Reversing recent politically inspired legislation would be the easiest thing to do. But many of these laws and decrees were designed to strengthen the executive, centralising control of state resources to finance the networks that keep the big man in power. That said, in mid-October, after nine months of closure and protests at Malawi's Chancellor College, the site of the initial unrest, the president relented, guaranteeing academic freedom and the retention of academic leaders who champion it.

Finally, the hardest changes to achieve may be those relating to corruption, party politics and the 2014 presidential election. Much of Mutharika's policy-making is driven by the need to ensure that his brother, Peter, wins the presidency. It shapes his view of protests and the treatment of activists. It explains his and others' reluctance to elaborate on the origins of their wealth, and underlies his conflicts with other politicians, notably the vice-president, Joyce Banda.

But unless political, economic and legal reforms are agreed and implemented, the next two years are likely to be marked by worsening poverty, more rights abuses, widening corruption and more violence.

That is a downward spiral Malawians should not have to endure.


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