Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Emmanuel Fabiano on Tuesday provided scanty information about President Peter Mutharika’s trip to the 73rd United Nations General Assembly (Unga) in New York.
During a news conference in Lilongwe, ostensibly meant to give details about the President’s trip set for Friday, the minister could not indicate how long Mutharika is expected to stay in the United States of America and the size of the delegation funded through the public purse.
He said: “As regard to the number of days, the President will leave and come back as he wishes.”
Fabiano said he alongside five other Cabinet ministers—Jean Kalilani (Gender, Children, Disability and Social Welfare), Atupele Muluzi (Health and Population), Francis Kasaila (Labour, Youth, Sports and Manpower Development), Cecilia Chazama (Home Affairs and Internal Security) and Everton Chimulirenji (Deputy Minister of Defence)—will accompany the President on the trip.
Responding to a question on why the number of Cabinet ministers has increased from three last year to six, amid expenditure control measures that include travel restrictions, he said there is pressure of work at the Unga requiring the presence of ministers.
Fabiano said that during last year’s Unga, some principal secretaries (PSs) and directors were delegated to high-level meetings which required the presence of Cabinet ministers. As a result he said Malawi was not taken seriously due to what he called “low-ranking representation”.
On the size of the Malawi delegation, Fabiano said: “The question of who is going is the responsibility of each minister. The ministers will travel with their PS or director to assist them and in that regard. It is not the responsibility of the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
“For me, it does not matter who goes and who does not go because they do not get approval from me.”
But in his presentation, the minister outlined the President’s engagement in the US, which include attending the official opening of the Unga on September 25 and delivering a statement within the general debate session where heads of delegation present national statements on any item before the assembly. The session is scheduled to run from September 25 to October 5.
The President is scheduled to make his presentation on the first day of the general debate on September 25, according to a statement from Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation.
Besides, Mutharika is expected to attend 10 side meetings, according to the statement which did not indicate specific dates.
Commenting on the issue, governance expert Augustine Magolowondo said it was unfortunate that Capital Hill cannot provide full details of the President’s trip.
He said the culture of secrecy contradicts the spirit of transparency, accountability and the law of Access to Information.
Said Magolowondo: “To me, this underlines the necessity of having the Access to Information law so that citizens are not at the mercy of officials in terms of access to information.
“Unga is important, we agree. But, we need to know the objectives of government at this meeting. Who is going and do what? So, if you ask me, I have issues with the culture of secrecy. Government needs to be more open on such issues.”
In recent years, the annual Unga trip has been shrouded in secrecy. In 2014, Mutharika was accused of taking a bloated delegation at a time the country’s economy was struggling.
In 2016, the President was quick to address a news conference on his return following an extended stay in the US. Mutharika took nearly a month to return home after the Unga ended.
During previous Unga meetings, leaders of other African countries, including Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique returned to their bases immediately after addressing the general assembly.
This year’s Unga will be held under the theme Making the United Nations Relevant to All People: Global Leadership and Shared Responsibilities for Peaceful, Equitable and Sustainable Societies.