President Bingu wa Mutharika’s death on April 5, 2012 triggered a battle over who was his rightful successor. The battle ended with victory for the country’s constitution, Vice President Joyce Banda was appointed president, and a certain calm was restored. Paradoxically, at the same time, this incident illustrates that political decision-making and power over the country largely rests with aid donors and other forces outside Malawi’s borders.
The late President Mutharika was first known as a “talented technocrat”, a friend of both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and of his own people. But upon his death, he was referred to as an “intolerant autocrat” who had led the country into crisis, and who had not been trusted either by the general population or by donors.
When Malaysians took to the streets to protest against Mutharika in the summer of 2011, he ordered the police to meet the protesters with sharp shots. 20 civilians were killed. Many believe the strong and visible reactions among people were unthinkable in Malawi a few years ago. In this way, threats to a young and vulnerable democracy also gave it power, at least in the cities.
Mutharika had become a clear opponent of critical voices. Opposition politicians, academics and human rights activists had been imprisoned or threatened by Malawian police, while the press was under intense pressure. At one point, the president asked the country’s donors to “go to hell.”
Currency and petrol crisis
For a long time, it had looked positive for Malawi during Mutharika. In the first years after he came to power in 2004, he was able to show financial support and increased food security. The country had an economic growth of 7-8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) per year. From a situation of frequent hunger, Malawi went on to become an exporter of corn. But it was a crazy success story. Malawi has two significant sources of foreign exchange – aid and commodity exports – and both failed. The development has painfully demonstrated the vulnerability of such an addiction position.
Tobacco sales, which accounted for more than 60 percent of the country’s currency income, failed. At the same time, Mutharika resorted to an increasingly authoritarian style and smoked unclearly with several of Malawi’s donors. When it was revealed that the British High Commissioner referred to the president as “an autocrat who cannot stand criticism”, he was expelled by Mutharika. Returning home, the diplomat took Britain’s bilateral assistance. Since then, several donor countries, including Norway, froze their aid.
This is dramatic in a country where about 40 percent of the budget is aid-driven. Left behind was a state and a population without enough foreign currency to buy the medicines, gasoline and fertilizers they needed from abroad. 60 percent of the health investments in the country had been funded with aid, and this had major consequences when the money was withheld. Medicines and equipment for HIV testing were lacking, which is serious in a country where 11 percent of the population has the virus. Dry gasoline pumps boosted fuel prices and generally caused things to stop.
The death of a president
After clinging to power for a long time, President Mutharika fell into a heart attack at Easter 2012. But even after his death, there were forces trying to prevent his departure. The Malawian Constitution states that upon the passing of the President, it is the Vice President who will take over power. But Mutharika had already ousted Vice President Joyce Banda from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government. He wanted his brother Peter to take over as he himself could not stand for election for a third term. The president’s dead body was sent to South Africa, while people in Malawi were told that they were still trying to save him. Meanwhile, his brother and his allies worked to figure out how to retain power and prevent Banda from taking over the presidency. But they had to give up.
This is not the first time Malawi has experienced a leader who strikes hard on anyone who does not accept him. The paper became a democracy in 1994, after “life-long president” Kamuzu Banda (who is not related to Joyce Banda) had ruled since independence. Based on the motto of “the four cornerstones” – obedience, discipline, loyalty and unity – Banda sought to control people as close to the body as to the dress and hair.
Banda considered herself to deserve better than her people. When he took over the colonial British VIP position in Malawian society, his successors did the same when the 30-year dictatorship ended. Today, the most prosperous in Malawian society can be found in the political elite and among individuals affiliated with non-governmental organizations, such as NGOs.
This group is small. 80 percent of the population lives in the countryside and is predicted to grow their food every year. According to Countryaah, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world and ranked number 171 out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI) in 2011.
President Joyce Banda represented a hope when she took over. She could contribute to immediate improvement because she could rectify the specific conditions that had put Malawi out of play during Mutharika, especially when it came to relations with donors. At the same time, her decision to follow the IMF’s advice to devalue the kwacha (the national currency) by 50 percent and to prioritize donor countries ‘wishes is a continuation of a trend, where donors’ demands are put ahead of what Malaysians want. The population has had to take the cost of the devaluation, which has led to yet another dramatic increase in the prices of food, fertilizers and gasoline. The fear of hunger is back. The same is true of demonstrations of the right of access to what is necessary for survival – though this time without violent response.
The president has been criticized for being more concerned with satisfying donors than by putting forward a sustainable future plan for Malawi. The tendency to prioritize donor conditions is a democratic problem for the country – paradoxically maintained by the same donors who claim to work to promote good governance and democracy.