It seems the plan has no strategy. Thus, like Alice in Wonderland, it has darted to Qatar, found itself in Zimbabwe, rambled into Angola and sneaked into Nigeria without yielding sustainable results at fuel stations in Malawi.
On rare occasions, the strategy has loitered at the local fuel pumps only to melt away like a shadow, leaving a hollow and despair among motorists.
The Nation reporters have also spotted the plan in Salima, Mchinji and Kanengo. There have also been sightings of the same around Chilumba in Karonga andÃ¢â‚¬â€most recentlyÃ¢â‚¬â€at airports, sometimes at odd hours.
President Bingu wa MutharikaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s country-to-country secret lurches are the latest episodes in a strategic drama that sometimes borders on comedy, with the most recent one involving Nigeria.
In an effort to keep the fuel search secret, the Head of State left Malawi without fanfare early Tuesday morning.
On his way back, from what turned out to be Abuja in Nigeria, the President was forced to pass through the cargo section of Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) instead of the exuberant and befitting VVIP lounge.
The route taken to reach his official residence, the New State House, was the stuff of a playbook adopted from a bad spy movie.
Apparently, all thisÃ¢â‚¬â€returning home as ordinary cargoÃ¢â‚¬â€is part of the plan, the grand strategy to find fuel.
The secretive machinations, according to senior Cabinet ministers and government officials we have talked to, aim to beat unpatriotic critics sabotaging MutharikaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s manoeuvres at their own game.
So far, according to The Nation investigations, Mutharika has undertaken two secret trips in February alone in search of strategic alliances that can sustainably eliminate fuel shortages in the country.
Through interviews with insiders who have knowledge of the PresidentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s movements, The Nation has obtained details of visits to Abuja and Harare in Zimbabwe.
Mutharika also dispatched Deputy Minister in the Office of the President Nicholas Dausi to lead a separate mission to Angola for a possible deal that would allow the southern AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s leading oil producer to supply fuel to Malawi on flexible terms.
The Zimbabwe mission
On Thursday, February 2 2012, Mutharika quietly flew into Harare from Chileka International Airport. He landed in Harare at around 11 am, according to ZimbabweÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s State-owned The Herald newspaper of February 3 2012.
Mutharika was welcomed at the airport by ZimbabweÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Foreign Affairs Minister Simbarashe Mumbengegwi, Media, Information and Publicity Minister Webster Shamu and other senior government officials, according to the newspaper.
Mutharika reportedly held discussions with President Robert Mugabe and later told reporters that co-operation among African countries will help them overcome challenges.
According to the newspaper, MalawiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe, Professor Richard Phoya, earlier said Mutharika was in Zimbabwe to share notes with Mugabe.
“This is a very private visit by our Head of State to confer with his brother [Comrade] Robert Mugabe. There are quite a number of issues they need to compare notes [on],” Phoya was quoted by the newspaper whose story can be accessed on http://allafrica.com/stories/201202030230.html.
But Capital Hill sources this week disclosed that the major topic with Mugabe was to ask the Zimbabwean Government to allow Malawi to use its 287 km Feruka Pipeline from Beira which pumps up to one billion litres of fuel annually, as an alternative source of fuel for Malawi. We are yet to establish MugabeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s response to Mutharika.
The search of fuel continues
The President recently also sent Deputy Minister in the Office of the President Nicholas Dausi to Luanda, Angola, where the local media reported he delivered a personal message from Mutharika to President Eduardo dos Santos.
“The option of getting oil from Angola on credit is also being pursued. It is also the matter that Angola can help with, being closer neighbours and we are in the same Sadc region,” said another Capital Hill official familiar with the discussions.
Dausi declined to comment this week.
But if the Harare and Luanda trips yielded anything, that did not show as Mutharika left again for Abuja where he met oil officials in AfricaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s largest oil producing nation.
The President used a seven-car convoy to go to the airport and there were no uniformed police officers, fire engines or aviation staff when he eventually flew out at 6.35 am.
A group of five individuals arrived at the airport much earlier and boarded the flight. One of our government sources claimed National Oil Company of Malawi (NOCM) chief executive officer Robert Mdeza was already in Abuja as part of an advance party.
Why the secrecy?
Said the source: “The secrecy has to do with perceived sabotage. For months, government has been working hard to secure credit lines, but someone botches up or provides something to prospective sellers and we lose out. There are investigations being handled by Malawi Police Service and National Intelligence Services to that effect.Ã¢â‚¬Â
The sources cited the process which began in Qatar where everything was almost finalised, but things turned sour when suppliers suddenly changed tune and demanded upfront payments.
“We are the only country paying cash, thanks to our vibrant saboteurs who are happy to see ambulances stop and people die needlessly. The President has resorted to working quietly and produce results,” said a source.
Fuel storage facilities rehabilitated
Meanwhile, back home, the Mutharika administration has made progress in rehabilitating Kamuzu Banda era fuel storage facilitiesÃ¢â‚¬â€which they initially dismissed as non-existent, especially those in Salima and Mchinji.
The Nation, which visited the once abandoned strategic reserves at Chipoka in Salima, Mchinji and Chilumba in Karonga in the past week, can reveal that from late last year, the Mchinji and Chipoka storage facilities have worn new faces. But filling them with fuel could take a while as shortages persist and foreign currency remains elusive.
“They are now under National Oil Company of Malawi. We have worked for the last four months to restore them with the help of some engineers and I can tell you they are ready,” one of the supervisors at Chipoka said on Saturday.
At the site, there is a new house next to the facilities, an office block and a shed which another worker explained will be for loading purposes. We counted at least eight reservoirs painted in shiny metallic colours.
However, the nearby railway line, though still in usable condition, is overgrown with bushes.
“There used to be a fence and the place was neglected from somewhere around 1997. We had not had fuel in those tanks for so many years and it killed our economy as the trains and trucks coming to load fuel, stopped coming. Chipoka, once a big town, is almost dead now,” said Mahamud Mbaya, who claimed to be in charge of a nearby fishing village.
Chipoka is one of MalawiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s rare ports where water, rail and road transport systems meet, purposely built to ease distribution of essential goods to the North, South and Centre.
In Mchinji, the guards were strict, refusing to say much about progress, but villagers said the rehabilitation started somewhere last year and the place has been transformed, including erection of a brick wall and some structures inside.
The facilities are accessible by road and rail on the Mchinji-Chipata route, with the railway line having been rehabilitated recently when Zambia was launching its connecting link to Mchinji.
“There is a change, it seems someone has remembered that these facilities exist and they are now paying attention to them. They have been in sorry state and kids used to go and play on them,” said another resident identified as Mazizi who lives near the tanks. He said the place is still called PCC after the defunct Petroleum Control Commission.
Mdeza was reportedly out of the country when The Nation sought his comment and Natural Resources, Energy and Environment Minister Goodall Gondwe said the national oil company would be better placed to comment on the developments.
At Chilumba, renovations have not started, but our reporter noticed that the place is now well kept.
According to the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera), the rehabilitation work in Mchinji and Chipoka started in the first quarter of 2009. They were scheduled for completion in 2010.
The storage facilities have been idle for a long time after PCC wound up, according to the Mera website.
Once completed, Mchinji and Chipoka facilities combined will be able to reserve 154 000 litres of petrol; 314 000 litres of paraffin; 82 000 litres of diesel; and 23 000 litres of ethanol, says Mera.
Currently, the market consumption of fuel per day in Malawi is at an average of one million litres. Malawi is targeting to increase its fuel storage facilities to provide a 30-day fuel import cover as opposed to the current situation which allows less than 10 days reserve.
But with authorities failing to bring in enough fuel for the service stations due to forex problems, it is hard to see how it can fill the reserves in the short to medium term, raising fears that the facilities could once again become the white elephants they have been in decades despite the current investments to refurbish them.
Malawi needs $30 million to import fuel every month; translating into an annual bill of $360 million.
With main export earner tobacco losing its forex-raising power and budgetary support frozen, only hand-to-mouth importsÃ¢â‚¬â€not storageÃ¢â‚¬â€appears possible for now although even that is not guaranteed. (With additional reporting by Bright Mhango, Staff Reporter)
Malawi has been experiencing erratic supply of fuel sinceÃ‚Â 2008. The crisis has been attributed to shortage of foreign exchange in the country.
Ã‚Â·Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â Ã‚Â MalawiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s daily fuel requirements are estimated at one million litres. The country requires about $30 million per month to buy fuel.