Thursday, May 24, 2007

Malawi and Mugabe

Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika has come under fire from opposition leaders for a $120m maize export deal with Zimbabwe. Malawian opposition leaders accused Mutharika at weekend rallies of exporting the country's maize stocks to Zimbabwe "virtually for free" to prop up the embattled Mugabe regime. Malawi Democratic Party (MDP) president Kamlepo Kalua suggested the reason why: He said Mutharika's wife was Zimbabwean and her family had a farm in Zimbabwe. He said the deal jeopardised poverty-stricken Malawi's own food security.

Kalua also said the President was violating international trade rules by paying for the maize it was exporting to Zimbabwe. "The government has taken $300m from the Reserve Bank of Malawi to pay the National Food Reserve Authority for the maize it is exporting to Zimbabwe," Kalua said. Kalua was addressing a rally alongside former president Bakili Muluzi. Muluzi handpicked Mutharika as his successor following the end of his official two five-year terms in 2004 but is now touring the country drumming up support for third tilt when the presidential elections occur in 2009.

Malawi was settled by Bantu tribes in the 16th century. Malawi is probably a corruption of Maravi. Maravi was a Bantu state established the state of around Lake Malawi whose culture flourished for 300 years. It extended into stretches now belonging to Zambia and Mozambique. Through the coast of Mozambique, the Maravi traded ivory, iron, and slaves with the Portuguese and Arabs. In the middle of the 19th century, they were destroyed by two invasions: from the south came the Ngoni, who fled from the Zulu Kingdom in South Africa, and from the north came Muslim slave traders, who decimated and depopulated the region.

The first significant Western contact was the arrival of David Livingstone along the north shore of the lake in 1859. Livingston witnessed the slavery at first hand and estimated that 19,000 Malawian slaves were exported from Zanzibar each year. Several Scottish Presbyterian churches established missions in his wake. They were followed by a British consul in 1993 who was accredited to the "Kings and Chiefs of Central Africa”. This fiction didn’t last long. By 1891, the British established direct rule with the British Central Africa Protectorate. In 1907 the name was changed to Nyasaland (Nyasa is the Chiyao word for "lake").

The history of Nyasaland was marked with many resistance struggles. A growing European and American educated African elite became politically active. They set up the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) in 1944. In 1958, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned to Malawi after a long exile in the US. He assumed leadership of the NAC, which later became the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). Banda was imprisoned for political activities but was released in 1960 to participate in a constitutional conference in London. A year later the MCP won an overwhelming electoral victory. Banda became Prime Minister in 1963 and the British link was dissolved a year later. The new country was renamed Malawi.

Banda turned the new nation into a one party state and declared himself president for life in 1971. Hastings Kamuzu Banda would rule for over 30 years. Externally he was mostly viewed as a benign but eccentric leader. He dressed in his English-style three-piece suits, matching handkerchiefs and carried a fly-whisk. In Malawi itself views on him ranged from a cult-like devotion to fear. Banda outlawed long hair and beards for men and banned kissing in public. Towards the end of his reign, political unrest spread under pressure from Malawi church groups and the international community.

His reign was brought to an end by a 1993 referendum where the people voted overwhelmingly for multi-party democracy. Bandu and his MCP were soundly defeated in elections a year later. Bakili Muluzi was installed President as head of a coalition government. Muluzi won two terms of office but was unable to change the constitution to run a third time. And so in 2004, Muluzi reluctantly endorsed former party ally Bingu wa Mutharika for president which he won in a disputed election with just 36 per cent of the vote.

But when Mutharika resigned from the party a year later, Muluzi “apologised” to the country for picking him. The power struggle has continued since then. Mutharika sacked Coalition partners who threatened to impeach him. Last year the vice-president was arrested on charges of plotting to assassinate the president. In October 2006, the 72 year old Mutharika announced he would seek re-election in 2009 after the Malawi Constitutional Court cleared him of any imminent impeachment threat in parliament.

Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in Africa. The EU funds most Malawi government activities including food imports and anti-retroviral drugs to treat HIV. But Mutharika earned the wrath of the EU after he named a multi-million dollar EU-funded highway after Mugabe. The Robert Mugabe Highway links landlocked Malawi with Mozambique’s Indian ocean ports.

At the highway’s lavish opening ceremony surrounded by tight security to deter protests, Mutharika hailed Mugabe as a "true democrat” and “son of Africa". The Malawi government says the naming was in gratitude for Zimbabwe's job opportunities for Malawian workers. Kamlepo Kalua also said it would be inappropriate to honour the Zimbabwean leader personally "It would be a serious oversight to decorate and honour a leader who is classified as an outright dictator," he said.

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