President Lazarus Chakwera has earned rare praise from several quarters, including some of his administration’s critics for the austerity measures to stabilise the economy as well as his stance on corruption announced Tuesday evening.
Revered former minister of Finance Goodall Gondwe, who 24 hours earlier was among opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) heavyweights who faulted the Tonse Alliance’s economic management, hailed the President for responding to popular concerns.
But Gondwe, in an interview yesterday, said the austerity measures will only make a real difference if the lack of discipline in the civil service is addressed.
The Public Affairs Committee (PAC) and other commentators also generally welcomed the measures announced during a news conference held at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe on Tuesday night, two days after the President returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland and the African Union Extraordinary Summit in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea.
The measures Chakwera announced include cutting by 20 percent fuel allowances for his Cabinet, restrictions on foreign travel to a maximum of three trips per year and restrictions on the movement of government pool vehicles after 6pm. The measures also include public officers only flying economy class.
In his reaction, Gondwe said while he personally has a lot of respect for the Secretary to the Treasury McDonald Mafuta Mwale, having worked with him before, the success of the measures are dependent on the strength and capability of the Secretary to President and Cabinet (SPC).
He said: “Measures such as fleet management and cutting down on foreign trips are not new. We had them during Kamuzu’s time and they worked well because of the high level of discipline in the civil service and the then very strong SPC Mr. [Samson] Kakhobwe.
“We tried the same [measures] during the time of Bingu [wa Mutharika], but we really did not achieve a lot because of the eroded discipline in the civil service.”
However, Gondwe indicated that in as much as the measures may not make much difference, Chakwera has sent a strong political message that he is willing to do something about the terrible economic situation facing the country.
He said he was also impressed that Chakwera took on board the concerns DPP officials, including himself, raised at a press conference held on Monday.
In a separate interview, PAC publicity secretary Gilford Matonga said the quasi-religious advocacy watchdog was particularly impressed that the President relieved Zanga-Zanga Chikhosi of his duties as SPC.
On austerity measures, he said this should have been done long time ago.
Said Matonga: “This is the kind of leadership we are looking for. We expected the President to come up with these measures a long time ago, but we are happy that he has finally responded to people’s concerns.
“We are also glad that finally he has broken the silence and has said something promising on an issue to do with investigations against Sattar.”
PAC has previously met Chakwera more than once to raise various governance concerns.
Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency executive director Willy Kambwandira described the austerity measures as a step in the right direction.
But he asked the President to walk the talk in curbing the wastage of public resources from his office.
Kambwandira said: “We have been hearing promising ideas and rhetoric on austerity measures, but we do not see action. We will remain vigilant to hold them to account on implementation of these austerity measures.”
The President also announced a cut in fuel allowances for all Cabinet ministers by 20 percent.
Corroborated information shows that Cabinet ministers are entitled to about K1.7 million as monthly fuel allowance and based on this cut, government will save about K340 000 per minister, translating to K10.2 million per month for 30 ministers in the Cabinet, excluding the President and the Vice-President.
Gondwe felt the cut in fuel was on the lower side to make a serious impact on the economy.
However, economist Milward Tobias said while he welcomed the measures, he hoped they complement to what Minister of Finance and Economic Affairs Sosten Gwengwe announced in the 2022/23 National Budget Statement.
He said the budget statement measures such as fleet management are more robust and sustainable.
Said Tobias: “This is not the first time Malawians are hearing these measures, so what will be important is implementation.”
Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources agriculture economist and lecturer Dr Kennedy Machila said the President missed an opportunity to make a bold statement on the future of the resource-demanding Affordable Inputs Programme (AIP).
He said the programme has become unsustainable for Malawi, considering the cost of fertiliser in relation to returns.
Machila said: “As part of the measures, the President should have announced a policy shift in AIP implementation. With the cost of fertiliser now, it means government will have to spend more to reach out to the same number of beneficiaries.”
In his address, the President also ordered boards of directors for State-owned enterprises and statutory corporations to confine themselves to quarterly meetings plus one extraordinary meeting per quarter for emergency situations subject to approval by the line minister.
The President also announced a freeze in the purchase of new vehicles in the public service.