President Peter Mutharika should for once,not make history of being, like his departed brother, a professor of contradictions.
Bingu’s dream of turning Malawi from a consuming and importing nation to a producing and exporting one was quite refreshing.
But his seven years in office saw his government investing heavily in consumption, not production. For instance, as industries—which are the veins of production—staggered into imminent abyss, Bingu could barely waiver his expensive and flamboyant subsidies on farm inputs.
Perhaps that explains what happens when idiosyncratic politics reigns supreme in great brains sitting on burnished thrones.
Peter is yet to prove what he should be; his own man. His appointments so far—Goodall Gondwe, Mavuto Bamusi, Peter’s Mukhito and Nicholas Dausi—reveals Peter great skew towards patronage than excellence, more of reviving Bingu’s lost political dynasty than building his own.
But there is a glimmer of hope when, like his brother, Peter talks of turning Malawi from a consuming and importing nation to a producing and exporting one.
The fruition of such a vision, however, lies in investing heavily in science and technology. You cannot talk about manufacturing without science and technology. Imagine, after all the mining ventures that have been happening in the country, Malawi does not have even a mining engineer. Yet we complained when Paladin brought expatriates engineers. Are we really serious as a country?
Of course the Polytechnic, in its next academic calendar, is introducing a new course in mining engineering. But, as I write, the college does not even have a single laboratory or apparatus to start from. And yet we kept on subsidising farm input. Really?
Not only that.
While visiting the newly opened Chinese built Malawi University of Science of Technology (Must), the university’s team leader Dr Moses Chinyama said Malawi, together with other sub-Saharan African countries, is lagging behind in the development and application of science and technology.
According to United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) report of 2008, sub-Saharan Africa had 48 researchers per one million inhabitants compared to the world average of 894 researchers per million inhabitants.
However, the coming in of Must is, to a greater extent, giving a reason to hope for the better. Chinyama told me that the college can enrol almost 6 000 students—which is way higher than the 3 000 the entire University of Malawi (Unima) enrols.
What is disheartening is that though construction of the university is complete, the university, which opened in March this year, has only started with 127 students. The best part of it is still a white elephant—a white elephant in a country where only 0.4 percent access quality university education.
I will not delve into detailing why the university has not opened full throttle. But as Tarsizius Nampota, the project coordinator of Must said, the college can even open full throttle tomorrow if government wishes so.
My immediate guess is that the university is still short of some cash to kick-start it. We know from history that the college was looking for K25 billion for the purchase of furniture, furnishing students dormitories, recruiting lecturers, building and furnishing the laboratory and, most importantly, constructing lecturers’ houses.
For a government that is committed to turning Malawi from a consuming and importing nation to a producing and exporting one, I just do not see what should keep it from priotising Must so that it rolls out full throttle.
That it is why it will be a mark of extreme contradiction if Peter’s government priotises subsiding farm input, cement and iron sheets at the expense of funding Must.
The cement and iron sheets subsidy for the poor is, just like Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp), another retrogressive policy which subsides consumption, not production and the net effect is gaining cheap political support.
The irony of this subsidy is that it targets the same person enjoying a myriad of other subsidies; the poor. And for all the years we have been subsidising education, health, energy and security, the sum has been deepening on poverty levels among the targeted.
The wisdom from these subsidies is that they operate like giving fish to a local without teaching them how to fish.
I believe if we can heavily invest, to the point of subsiding in productive sectors such as research institutions, science and technology; and supporting manufacturing companies, we, as a country, can teach the locals how to fish.
We can create employment to the locals and ready markets to our farmers, as a result, government will not have to struggle to subsidise education and fertiliser because most Malawians will have the capacity to buy.
This is why I am watching with keen interest how Peter will balance the needs of Must (which represents a larger good) and that of cement and irons sheets (which represents parochial political interests).
But as I am waiting, I need to make my point clear: MR PRESIDENT, PLEASE FUND MUST, NOT CEMENT AND IRON SHEETS.