On January 17, the Consumers Association of Malawi (Cama), led by its executive director John Kapito, held demonstrations against the floatation of the kwacha which has made prices of fuel unstable, among other things, and presented a petition to the President to address the issues. The petition had a 21-day ultimatum. Considering the fuel price increases on Saturday and that the 21-day ultimatum is about to expire, Albert Sharra talks to Kapito on his views.
Q. In your petition, you asked government to suspend the automatic fuel pricing system to control fuel price, but government is still applying the system to date. This week, fuel prices went up again. What do you think of the recent fuel price increase and why are you against this system?
A.Our petition was more focused on the floatation of the kwacha which we are confident that, if removed, it would address all the challenges we have on the automatic pricing mechanism. Our argument has been the wrong policy sequencing of devaluation and floatation which continues to create challenges on the ever-changing petroleum pump prices and other commodity prices.
The huge movements in the pricing of fuel are heavily influenced by the continued daily depreciation of the
Malawi kwacha and we believe that once the floatation of the kwacha stops, we will see stable prices of fuel at a given time which can assist consumers and the industry to plan better.
The automatic pricing mechanism has been used in Malawi for a long period and we do not have any problems with it, only that it has been worsened by the continued daily weakening of the kwacha. The basis of floating the kwacha can never be understood in a country like Malawi, with no foreign reserves and nothing to export. Who is really benefiting from this reform?
Q. There are a few days to go before the 21-day ultimatum you gave to government to respond to the issues in your petition on January 17. Are you satisfied with the way government is handling issues raised in the petition?
A. There are indeed a few days to go on the petition that we gave government and we have not yet received any response as yet either for any dialogue or otherwise, and whether they are working on those issues.
I must admit none of the issues are being done apart from the rumours that we are getting from other sources, but what we expect to see from government is a constructive process of engagement and implementation of the issues and how we can all develop monitoring tools to ensure that implementation is transparent and is easily monitored for progress.
We strongly believe that government will respond before February 15 2013 on all our issues.
Q: You asked government to respond to your petition in writing. Why is that and do you think this will happen?
A. That is the normal process; how else would government respond to grievances from people? Government is not God, the people can deliver their grievances to their elected leaders and the leaders ought to do the same in a structured manner, even if we were ruled by a monarchy. That is the only way we can hold our elected leaders accountable.
Q. There have been reports that government has tried to silence you and other civil society leaders. Is this true?
A. Government continues indeed to waste taxpayers’ money in trying to silence critics and they wasted so much money during the January 17 2013 demonstrations by coming up with several anti-demo rallies, programmes on the public radio and television, buying off some members of the organising committees, especially the South committee, and giving some civil society organisations money to discredit the demonstrations, but they failed to crack through me personally, and the Central Region and Northern Region committees. One would have to cut my head off for me to sell off the pain and challenges that most poor Malawians are going through. I am poor yes, but not for sale and I will never let consumers down.
Q. Some quarters have described you as being unreasonable to government, saying the demands made in the petition cannot be resolved immediately and that the whole world is facing an economic crisis; hence, we need to be patient with government. What do you say to this?
A. Some Malawians have described me with so many adjectives and slowly the very same people have started joining my cause. There is nothing complicated in what we raised in the petition. These are simple issues that come from the people. Is demanding for a decent salary adjustment, requesting government to be transparent by declaring their assets, abandoning the floatation of the kwacha, sale of the Presidential Jet and ministerial cars and reduction of trips by the presidency and her Cabinet unreasonable during a period of economic austerity? What is so complicated about these issues for them to be called unreasonable demands?
Q. You have blamed government for listening too much to donors without looking at our unique situation. Do you think Malawi can do without donor support?
A. I have blamed government for listening too much to IMF and the World Bank in particular for reasons that Malawi failed to put a strong bargaining case about her position. There were indeed a number of issues we could have accepted and rejected during the negotiations with these partners. As I have said, we had no option not to devalue the kwacha, but we could have negotiated the floatation. What is the merit in floating the kwacha without any foreign reserves and before any strong export infrastructure is put in place? As of now, it will take Malawi over five years before it enters the export market, if ever it will.
Q. If you were the country’s First Citizen, what would you do to solve the current economic crisis without letting donors down, like the late Bingu wa Mutharika did?
A. Unfortunately, I will never be a first citizen, but I believe having a credible and reliable team within your leadership is an asset. A team that is professional and capable of telling you certain things that you are not ready to hear, but helpful to you and the people. I would not want to be surrounded by hand-clappers, gold diggers, people that would not question instructions and provide better analytical arguments, both for and against.
Unfortunately, in Malawi, we have many types of donors, but it is important to understand that the key are the bilateral and multi-lateral partners. I would develop and have strong teams that understand their interests in Malawi, but are also familiar with Malawi’s interests and continue to engage these partners frequently for the common good.