Former president, the late Bingu wa Mutharika popularised the mantra that Malawi is not poor but its people are. Alongside this, he would say Malawi cannot only be developed by Malawians. The import of his statement was Malawians-not donors-will determine their destiny. That Malawians needed to harness the energies (intellectual or otherwise) to exploit the resources they have to develop the country.
Benefitting from good weather which resulted in bumper maize harvests for three successive years-2006/7 to 2009 and reaping the benefits of a joint IMF-World Bank debt relief programme under the HIPC Initiative, Bingu seemed to have lived his philosophy about how to develop Malawi. And thus he would often brag: “Let my hands speak for me.”
What some have described as Malawi renaissance-2006 to 2009-it is no surprise that Bingu won the elections in 2009 with a landslide when 65 percent of Malawians-including this writer-voted for him. This was the highest number of votes a presidential candidate has amassed since the multiparty dispensation. But as they say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The honeymoon was short-lived. Bingu threw to the wind everything that had propelled him to victory.
It all started in the same year-2009-the UK government accused Bingu of mishandling the economy and failing to uphold human rights. The UK government cut budgetary support to Malawi-which used to rely on donors for 40 percent of its budget. However in the following year, Britain gave Malawi other aid worth $145million-but not through government. When the IMF also cut aid to Malawi in 2010, government passed an austerity budget and raised taxes.
Things reached a head when the UK envoy Fergus Cochrane-Dyet was quoted in a leaked cable that Bingu does not tolerate criticism. Bingu expelled him saying he would not accept insults just because Britain was the country’s largest aid donor. The UK government hit back by also expelling Malawi’s envoy in that country.
Following this diplomatic spat in July, 2011, the UK government which was then Malawi’s largest budgetary support donor cut all aid to Malawi. The previous year, the UK gave $30million in budgetary support to Malawi.
By end 2011 the effects of the aid freeze started to take their toll. Malawi could not import adequate fuel which resulted in long queues at service stations. It also became hard to get foreign currency in banks.
In March 2012 civil societies issued an ultimatum for Bingu to either fix the economy in 60 days or resign. But Bingu did not live beyond the 60 days ultimatum. He died on April 5 of cardiac arrest, leaving the country worse off than when he took over government in 2004. And so, he did not live to see his vision of transforming Malawi, a rich country where people were poor, from being a predominantly importing country to a predominantly exporting country.
It is against this background that as we count down to May 21 it is not the manifestos that all political parties have released that will sway me to any candidate more than what I have seen, felt and smelt from the candidates. Thus APM, SKC and Atupele all either have an advantage over Laz, for being members of the same government, or their affiliation to the DPP government can hurt them if DPP has not delivered. In this election people will be deciding whether they are satisfied with what APM, SKC and Atupele have done together-as Bingu did in 2009-or the three have too little to justify their bid for election to State House.
On the other hand, the slate for Laz is empty, because he is in the campaign as the only real outsider. Apart from the usual factors that drive voters in Malawi such as regional voting patterns, voters in the May 21 elections will choose between continuity—or even better the devil they know—APM, SKC and Atupele—or whether they want to try a new broom—Laz. n