Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharikaâ€™s advisory council is reported to be in disarray, with some members accusing the Head of State of ignoring advice on key issues that could have averted the current crises.
Investigations also reveal that although the council was supposed to have â€œregularâ€ meetings, it has not met since August 2011, sparking fears that the President may silently have disbanded it.
Yet, during this seven-month period, the countryâ€™s political and economic situation has deteriorated so much that a two-day All-Inclusive Stakeholdersâ€™ Conference organised by the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) in Blantyre last week resolved to ask Mutharika to either resign within 60 days or call for a referendum on his leadership within 90 days.
But secretary to the council, presidential legal adviser Allan Ntata, said this week the council is intact.
â€˜Bingu doesnâ€™t take adviceâ€™
One of the three members of the council said the body started well, but lost steam when it became clear that the President did not appreciate membersâ€™ advice.
The member said this was especially clear on the make-or-break questions the country faced since 2010; the deportation of British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, Mutharikaâ€™s public diplomacy and the devaluation of the kwacha as per the International Monetary Fund (IMF)-supported programme.
â€œI remember correctly that we strongly advised against the expulsion of the British High Commissioner. When he was expelled, it was a shock to most of the council members because we had raised fears of the repercussions of implementing that decision,â€ said the member.
The consequences were far-reaching as London reciprocated by kicking out Malawiâ€™s acting High Commissioner to the United Kingdom (UK) Flossie Gomile Chidyaonga. They also froze direct aid to government.
There have also been solidarity sanctions by other Western donors who have frozen their own support.
The council also advised Mutharika to desist from using inflammatory language, but the President went right ahead, calling donors and local critics all sorts of names and ordering his DPP youth arm to deal with his critics.
After the Presidentâ€™s inflammatory speech, petrol bombs against alleged critics became the order of the day.
The day before the July 20 2011 demonstrations, panga-wielding youth in DPP-branded vehicles drove around Blantyre. On the day of demonstrations, police shot dead 20 people.
Human rights violations
The human rights violations that usually followed the Presidentâ€™s combative statements, forced more donors to freeze aid, including the US Government which suspended the $350 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant aimed at improving power supply.
Of late, Mutharika has stepped up his attacks against foreign donors, accusing them of trying to recolonise Malawi and financing the local civil society to push for regime change. Donorsâ€”who the President has declared â€œcan go to hellâ€â€”deny this.
On the fuel and forex shortages, a third member of the council said: â€œWe outlined short, medium and long-term solutions to these problems. None of the measures we recommended was taken on board. It was very frustrating.â€
Devaluation of kwacha
For instance, the council advised Mutharika to devalue the kwacha but he has ignored that advice, forcing the IMF to put the Extended Credit Facility (ECF) off-track, which has also meant that donors cannot disburse budget support.
The absence of donor aid, which traditionally contributes 30 percent of the national budget, has forced government to drastically cut back on spending to the detriment of social and capital investment and has worsened foreign currency shortages. The economy is also sinking, with shortages of fuel, bread and sugar becoming the order of the day. The cost of living is also galloping.
â€˜Bingu has good intentions butâ€¦â€™
But another member said based on his assessment of the President during the interactions in the council, Mutharika genuinely has the welfare of Malawians at heart, only that the Head of State does not always realise that the paths he thinks are good for Malawians are in fact bad.
â€œI am convinced that in his mind and in his heart, Mutharika has very good intentions and he has the right vision for the country. The problem is that no one in the civil service and the Cabinet is ready to challenge him intellectually and it has cost the country a great deal,â€ said the member.
In November 2009, Mutharika appointed a group of 19 so-called eminent people from a cross section of the Malawian society, including the business fraternity, economics profession, the faith community, civil society, politicians and technocrats into what was originally called the Malawi Development Advisory Council (Madac).
Advisory councilâ€™s mandate
According to an appointment letter in our possession to one of the council members and signed by Mutharika, Madacâ€™s mandate comprised three main tasks.
The first was to regularly review and monitor the implementation of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) within the context of the countryâ€™s political, economic, social and security framework and to prepare reports to the President.
The second was to advise the President on appropriate policy measures that would enable the country to generate and sustain rapid macroeconomic growth with a view to attain national food security, alleviate poverty and launch the economy on the road to prosperity.
The third was to perform any other mandates as may be decided by the President.
But by the time of the councilâ€™s first meeting at the New State House in Lilongwe which the President personally convened and chaired on March 11 2010â€”slightly more than four months after the advisers were appointedâ€”the bodyâ€™s name had changed to National Advisory Council for Strategic Planning (NACSP).
The members were sworn in on October 19 2010 at Sanjika Palace in Blantyre, almost a year after their appointment.
Members of the council interviewed said the first meetings started well, with highly technical discussions during which frank and honest advice was given.
The meeting took place when Mutharika was the chairperson of the African Union (AU).
At this meeting, the main agenda items were the review of the AU Action Plan and measures to strengthen the peace process in African countries, according to an invitation letter to one of the members personally signed by the President.
The President chaired the council in the first year after its inception until he appointed his brother, Professor Peter Mutharika, to take over the leadership after the members were sworn in.
According to some council members interviewed, the initial plan was that there would be quarterly meetings and that under the Presidentâ€™s chairmanship, there were at least three meetings.
â€œThus far, the meetings were very technical, frank and I think the advice was very honest and sincere,â€ said one of the members.
The source said although the original mandate of the council was to give technical advice on development matters, it was observed that there could be no progress on development if there was political instability in the country.
â€œSince the last meeting on August 11 2011 to discuss how to stop the vigils, there has not been any word either from the chairperson [Peter Mutharika] or the President. We have only heard that Seodi White and Professor Matthews Chikaonda are suspected to be spies within the council,â€ said the source.
Among the council members are economists Dr Thomas Munthali, Dr Maxwell Mkwezalamba, Chikaonda, Andrew Kumbatira and leaders Reverend Father Boniface Tamani, Dybon Chibonga, White and politicians Dr Cornelius Mwalwanda, Dr Ken Lipenga and Ken Kandodo.
â€˜Spying accusations unfortunateâ€™
Asked on accusations that she was a spy in the council, White said it was unfortunate that some people could be speculating such things when she had given her all to the council.
On whether she still regards herself a member of the council, White said: â€œSince we met lastÂ August, I have not received any communication to the effect that I am no longer a member or indeed that the council was abolished. But if the silence is anything to go by, the National Advisory Council has been a lost opportunity,â€ said White, who is also national coordinator for Women and Law in Southern Africa (Wilsa).
Asked on how effective the councilâ€™s advice was, she said: â€œIt is the Presidentâ€™s prerogative to take it [advice] or notâ€¦For me, this is a technical position. I have realised that a good adviser does not get attached to their advice. You give advice and then you detach yourself from the process; otherwise, there is a danger of becoming emotional.
â€œThe sad story is that most of the recommendations have not been effectively absorbed.â€
Chikaonda was not immediately available to comment on the spy allegations.
â€˜The body still intactâ€™
Responding to the issues raised by some members, Ntata said the body has not been abolished. He also said it was not true that the members were expected to be meeting at specific intervals.
â€œThere is no requirement for the National Advisory Council to meet quarterly as you seem to assume,â€ said Ntata.
He declined to comment on claims that the President was not implementing most of the recommendations from his advisers.
â€œThe council meets according to the urgency of certain matters and the availability of council members. Meetings can sometimes be close together or far apart. The assumption that meetings have been abandoned is incorrect.â€
He also said the Office of the President was not aware of the spying accusations.