We, Malawians, must part ourselves on our backs and smile. Our country is only 54 years old and we have achieved great things. We have achieved greater freedoms and a more functioning democracy than many old countries. It took the French over 1 300 years to oust their autocratic kings and queens. It took the Americans 200 years to fight and win voting rights for all. The British are still contented with their monarchy and a government without a written constitution, although they preach constitutionalism and others isms abroad.
However, it took us under 30 years to remove the dictatorship of the one-party State. While in other parts of the world women are still fighting for equal pay with men, here in Malawi we have never discriminated against each other in terms of salaries for equal work. In fact, in Malawi we have given women preferential treatment since 1964 to ensure that like their male counterparts they get basic education, secondary school education and university education and even positions in the police, army and Cabinet.
We have also beaten the record held by the Americans, French and British by being extremely tolerant and hardest to anger. Sometimes people mistake our tolerance for stupidity. Previous Ambassadors from Germany, Britain, and America have called us unprintable names, spied on us and taped our conversations and made them public. Imagine our High Commissioner in London calling the British government corrupt, stupid, and inept. Imagine our Malawian ambassador in Washington describing Ngwazi Donald Trump a woman-molester, a tax-evader and other unpalatable names.
One thing we can assure you of is that our High Commissioner and ambassador will be back in Malawi within 24 hours. No nation tolerates unsavoury remarks of and undiplomatic activities in a host country. Diplomatic overreach is unacceptable. But here we do tolerate such and our guests seem to be enjoying us.
Which takes us to the opinion piece three diplomats published in The Nation on September 14 2018. What we don’t know is whether or they were writing in the official or personal capacity. Nonetheless, their arguments for urging us to allow Escom and Egenco to milk us further through tariff hikes are worth responding to.
The diplomatic trio argued that Escom should raise tariffs soon so that Malawi develops. They argued that electricity tariffs should go up because Egenco and Escom need money to sustainably provide power to all Malawians. We agree with this, and nobody, no munthu can disagree with this observation.
But we have a problem understanding why Egenco and Escom do not have money. Until and unless the ambassadorial triumvirate gives us figures as to how much Egenco and Escom need to do a good job, how much money they have now in their coffers and the shortfall that needs filling, we have problems supporting the power tariff raise. What we Malawians know is that Egenco and Escom rake in billions of Malawi Kwacha per year. The same public companies get huge financial support from bilateral partners (and the Malawi government budget?). How that money is used should be explained before the public can support the need for a tariff raise.
Our guests also argued that we should raise our electricity tariffs because ours are the lowest in the region. No comment. Pricing of essential services and commodities is a highly contentious issue. Let us remember that our country has no social security support system. Subsidies and tax removals are the way to go for essentials to be available to all.
The diplomatic trio further argued that what we pay (officially K58.00) per unit of electricity is far below the cost of production. Without telling us the cost of production, we will find it hard to appreciate the argument for a tariff hike. Also, those who have bought electricity of late will tell you that the price per unit of Egenco-cum-Escom power is way above K70.00 per unit.
Professor Dr Abiti Joyce Befu, MG 66, has directed us to humbly request ambassadors representing their countries here, rich or poor, to first read the assessment reports issued by the Centre for Social Concern (CfSC) and other reputable research organisation before they make statements in support of wrong policies. The CfSC and, even, the NSO, have presented data that show that people avoid using power fully because, among other reasons, it is considered expensive. The paraphernalia needed to use electricity for are too expensive. The proposed tariff hike will take more people off power and drive them to charcoal from our already depleted forest cover. Unless their incomes get adjusted upwards and taxes are removed from units of power, electricity will always be deemed expensive.
Reflect on this: If the principal secretary or chief director avoids electricity and prefers to use charcoal, what do you expect her driver or office-cleaner to go for?