Malawi is a country of nearly 16 million people in south-eastern Africa. Sandwiched between its much larger neighbors of Mozambique, Tanzania, and Zambia, Malawi rarely makes headlines. However there is a movement growing in Malawi that is largely reminiscent to those events currently happening across the Arab world. Malawians have risen up in protest against their president Bingu wa Mutharika. Mr. Mutharika assumed office following a controversial election in 2004. He would soon after split with his political party to form his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Mr. Mutharika, as head of his own political party, effectively nominated himself to stand for re-election in 2009. He and his party were swept into office garnering more than twice the number of votes as the opposition party. His popularity in Malawi had largely been driven by economic growth. In 2010, the Malawian economy grew by 6.7% driven by agriculture and mining operations. Even though this is a slower rate of growth than 2009 (7.6%) due to lower agricultural yields caused by drought in northern Malawi, the economy has nevertheless remained steady and growing during the otherwise global downturn.
So why have the people risen up now? In recent years, Mr. Mutharika has grown increasingly dictatorial. He has nominated his brother to succeed him in the 2014 presidential election and in 2010, he married his second wife (his first had died of cancer in 2007) in a ceremony, funded at public expense, costing $1.3 million. The GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (a measure of per capita GDP that takes into account the actual purchasing power of the people in their own market) of Malawi is only $800. Despite the growth of the economy, Malawi remains one of the poorest countries in the world. After Mr. Mutharika expelled the British High Commissioner for a disparaging remark the Commissioner made about him, the Brits withdrew aid to Malawi. The EU quickly followed suit, suspending their aid. These recent protests have also forced the United States to suspend their aid to Malawi’s energy sector. It is estimated that up to 40% of Malawi’s development budget is based on aid from foreign nations, so these suspensions from some of the largest providers of aid, have really cut into the Malawian federal budget. All told, Malawi has seen nearly $750 million in aid money suspended.
The destruction and violence in Malawi is also threatening to spill over into the rest of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), a treaty among 15 southern African nations including Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The SADC’s mission, taken from their website, is “[T]o promote sustainable and equitable economic growth and socio-economic development through efficient productive systems, deeper co-operation and integration, good governance, and durable peace and security, so that the region emerges as a competitive and effective player in international relations and the world economy.”
The organizers of the protests in Malawi have given Mr. Mutharika until August 17 to respond peacefully to their demands and for him to leave office. Let’s hope that there is a peaceful resolution to this conflict and that the people of Malawi can rejoin the world economy and continue to grow their country and their society.