Whether out of austerity or change of focus, President Peter Mutharika has missed 90 percent of Sadc and AU Heads of State and Government summits compared with his predecessors.
While experts fear Malawi could be losing out as it isolates itself on the diplomatic front regionally, State House says Mutharika’s choice of what meeting to attend depends on the country’s interest.
Mutharika has so far only attended one Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) and one African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government summits, yet he has not missed any United Nations General Assembly (Unga) sessions.
In an interview with Nation on Sunday, political and policy analyst Associate Professor Happy Kayuni of Chancellor College said the President is sending a wrong message that he cares less about the region.
Kayuni said, while the Unga is important, Mutharika must strive for regional visibility first.
“I insist, it is important that the President attends in person because it helps in terms of networking. For him not to attend in person, he is sending a message that he does not value regional colleagues. Attending in person demonstrates how one values such meetings,” he said.
According to Kayuni, Malawi once faced isolation from its neighbours during the one-party era; hence, the absence at regional meetings reinforces a wrong perception about the country.
A Nation on Sunday analysis shows that, in the last five years, Mutharika has only attended one Sadc Heads of State and Government Summit, making him the odd one out among the country’s four presidents since 1994.
Records from Sadc show that Bakili Muluzi—president between 1994 and 2004—attended all annual Sadc summits, including extraordinary meetings.
Muluzi’s successor, the incumbent’s brother Bingu, in his eight-year rule, attended all Sadc summits except one in 2011.
In her two years in power, Joyce Banda attended all Sadc summits during the time.
Upon assuming power in 2014, the incumbent attended both the Sadc and African Union summits that year.
In 2015, Mutharika delegated then minister of Foreign Affairs and International Relations George Chaponda to attend the Sadc summit, where Botswana, Madagascar, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho, Zambia and Zimbabwe were represented by heads of State and Government, while the Seychelles and Angola were represented by their vice-presidents.
Foreign Affairs ministers were also delegated between 2016 and 2018 while Vice-President Everton Chimulirenji represented Malawi at the summit held in Tanzania in August this year.
Mutharika has not only shunned Sadc, but also his attendance at AU summits is equally poor. Since 2002 when the organisation was rebranded—his predecessors Muluzi, Bingu and Joyce Banda—have attended the annual summit in person while he has always delegated his Cabinet ministers.
Comparatively, leaders in neighbouring countries—Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa—have always attended the AU summit in person.
In an interview, one former diplomat said
Mutharika’s absence from these meetings potentially affects his relationship with others.
According to the diplomat, who refused to be named, this could be another reason Mutharika’s inauguration in May was not patronised by other leaders from neighbouring countries as is usually the case.
“By not attending important gatherings such as AU and Sadc, our country is reduced to the sidelines and nothing substantial can be said other than prepared speeches for those delegated on various issues on the agenda. During such meetings, impromptu decisions have to be made, but a person delegated may end up following decisions blindly because they have no power to make decisions.
“Our President has to interact with fellow leaders to share and compare notes on various very challenging issues. We can take advantage of the meeting to share notes with Tanzania on how we intend to tackle the issue of lake dispute or how to improve our trade links. It begins from informal interaction to formal arrangements,” said the diplomat.
The shunning of regional meetings in preference for Unga has raised questions on where Mutharika’s priorities lie.
In an interview, another expert in international relations Eddie Kalonga, a lecturer at Malawi Institute of Management (MIM), said the regional summits are deliberately established to foster unity of purpose; hence, a high level representation helps to reap maximum benefits.
“In this age of globalisation, Malawi needs a high level representation of a Head of State. Malawi has all the reasons to be worried as diplomacy is the profession of persuasion that requires the President representation to advance Malawi’s national interest to his counterparts and other non-state actors,” he said.
But in a written response, presidential press secretary Mgeme Kalirani said the country’s interests drive the President on meetings to attend.
He, however, said austerity is another reason that influences the President’s decision.
Asked why Mutharika seems to have different interests compared to his predecessors, who attended almost all Sadc and AU summits,
Kalilani said Mutharika is a leader in his own right and will not “copy-and-paste” his predecessors’ choices
“The President is running the affairs of Malawi at a different time and social political and economic environment from his predecessors. His approach to issues, be they domestic, regional or global, has to reflect the environment and times in which he has been called to lead.
“I hope we are not expecting President Prof. Mutharika to manage the affairs of the country copy-and-paste as his predecessors did. That is not practical. No two leaderships are the same inch-by-inch,” he argued.
Whatever reason State House may give, Kayuni insists that Malawi needs to make a strong regional presence which can help boost its visibility on a larger global platform.
“If we are to have impact at international level we need to be strongly linked at regional level. We are a small economy that needs regional connections. Honestly speaking, we are also a small country that needs others to have stronger voice on the international scene,” he said.
The love for Unga, is not just a Mutharika issue but a set tradition as both government and UN records show that since 1994 all Malawian presidents have preferred to attend the UN General Assembly in person.
For instance, in the last 10 years, Malawian Presidents have attended Unga in person save for Bingu who missed the 2011 meeting at the height of a sour relationship with the West.
Mutharika has also shown considerable commitment in attending the Comesa Heads of State and Government. Out of the three meetings during his tenure, he has attended two—one in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 2015 and the 2018 edition held in Lusaka, Zambia. He then delegated minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Francis Kasaila in 2016.
Muluzi attended the meeting in person, only delegating twice during his time. Equally, Bingu delegated twice while Joyce Banda represented Malawi as Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2007 and as vice-president in 2009. During her presidency, Banda attended all summits.