Decline and Fall

Gibbons, illustrated.

News that the Government of Malawi is (allegedly) expelling the British High Commissioner from the country in response to a leaked memo expressing dissatisfaction with the Governance situation there only serves to further emphasise the decline of Malawi as a donor darling. I lived and worked in Malawi for almost four years and retain an of enormous amount of affection for it: it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world and populated by some of the best people I’ve known. This being the case, I’ve been following its progress closely since I left. The changes in Malawi demonstrate the extremely important role of conflict in the domestic political process and relative powerlessness of donors.

When I left Malawi, I was full of optimism: elections (free, fair and gracefully conceded by the losing party) were about to be held; the economy was in it’s strongest state in years; aid was increasing almost exponentially, while we were ever moving closer to best practices in aid management and transparency; and the Government was committed to poverty reduction and economic growth. Since then, however, things have gone south quickly. The re-elected President, Bingu wa Mutharika, began to take on increasingly authoritarian tendencies; he sacked and removed many of the most competent Ministers (most notably Malawi’s excellent ex-Minister of Finance Goodall Gondwe) and reshuffled the Principal Secretaries, with many new appointees having strong ties to the President. This trend was only emphasised when the President at one point took on the same portfolio of Ministries as Dr. Hastings Banda, Malawi’s long-time dictator. He began to call himself ‘Ngwazi’ (hero), which was the name given to Banda. He even had the national flag redesigned: where before Malawi was represented by a rising sun, it is now fully risen, presumably in gratitude to the new regime.

The effects were eventually felt in Government policy. Progress on Governance issues began to reverse, and poor performance against the IMF programme in country led to a freeze on general budget support (since lifted by most donors), in turn causing a foreign exchange shortage which led to a situation of petrol scarcity which continues to date. The Government also began to exert malign influence on the universities, forbidding the discussion of certain topics by lecturers, and on civil society, by imposing financial requirements for permission to demonstrate. These changes are not simply academic – they are affecting people’s lives.

What’s most remarkable about these changes is the role of the Government under Mutharika. Matt has posted before about Malawi’s performance on inflation, crediting the IMF’s PRGF programme for helping kick start this improvement. This is definitely accurate, but there’s no doubt that the serious effort and political will of Bingu’s first Government played a massive role in ensuring that expenditure was reined in, and that all the IMF targets were taken seriously. Under Mutharika, corruption cases were brought to bear against various members of the previous Government, too. These may have been partly political, but it’s clear that they were also aimed at people who had stolen vast sums in the past – establishing an extremely important precedent for Malawi. The Government also put serious effort into improving the budgeting system and implementing and monitoring a national development strategy. So what changed?

In my opinion, the single biggest factor in Malawi’s turnaround has been the change in the security of Mutharika’s position. When he was first elected in 2004, Mutharika was a member of the UDF party. However, once in office, he left this party and created his own, the DPP, inducing a number of MPs to cross the floor and join the DPP from UDF and other parties. In response, the UDF made the claim that this was illegal citing a vaguely worded article of the Constitution – Section 65 – as rendering illegal any attempt to cross the floor. The DPP vigourously disputed this claim, but avoided any attempt to resolve it through the courts, because if the ruling had gone against them, they would have all lose their seats and had to stand for re-election, leaving the President isolated.

What this meant was that every time Mutharika’s Government wanted to pass anything controversial, be it a National Budget, or loan agreement or a new bill, the opposition could grind Parliament to a halt by refusing to vote until Section 65 was resolved. As a result, the Government had to work very hard to make sure that every step it took was justifiable in the public eye, and could be clearly explained in rational terms – any attempt to delay using Section 65 would then encounter popular resistance, as happened more than once when Budget delays led to demonstrations and scuffles near Parliament.

Section 65 was incredibly frustrating for those of us working to get bills through Parliament, or even just to get a Budget through so Government could spend legally, but it forced the Government to work in a consensus-building manner. We didn’t realise how important this perpetual conflict and peril to the Government was in keeping it in line.

Since his re-election, Mutharika has not had to worry about Section 65. He has a working majority and such authority over the DPP, especially with his changing of the top personnel, that he can do what he wants. The donors have tried very hard to put pressure on him, but the effect has been negligible, though they did have success in advocating for the release of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimabalanga, the gay couple imprisoned last year. In almost all other spheres, though, donor pressure has been far less successful than Parliamentary pressure: in keeping the Government from centralising power, from curbing civil liberties and from slipping in its management of the macroeconomy.

The lesson from this is clear: donor pressure is at best a modest weapon when compared with meaningful internal political conflict and accountability. This implies that new conditionalities in new forms may not be the best way to induce reform and good governance. Rather, if internal political debate is strengthened, and the role of Parliamentary opposition is reinforced, we create a climate in which the people’s will is far more likely to shape the governance styles and structures in the way citizens and domestic stakeholders want.

For Malawi, I still have a lot of hope. Things aren’t looking great right now, but they’re still a sight better than they were in 2000; material conditions for people are still on an upward trend. These gains can be built upon, and they aren’t close to being undone. But to ensure that progress does continue it’s clear that there needs to be some mechanism for citizens and opposition to hold the Government to account. Section 65 was a very blunt tool for this; the hope is they find another, better way.

One thought on “Decline and Fall

  1. alipo

    May 19, 2011 at 4:43pm

    Word on the street says that Mutharika’s wife left him the day before he expelled the British High Commissioner.

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