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05/03/2012

How Malawi will remember late president Bingu Wa Mutharika

Mutharika Parliament - Desiree Buitenbos
Bingu Wa Mutharika, former president of Malawi, died after suffering cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012. Photo by Desiree Buitenbos.

By Desiree Buitenbos

The flag flies at half mast outside Malawi’s parliament building where thousands of civilians have braved long line-ups in smoldering hot sunshine to view the body of late president, Bingu Wa Mutharika, who died after suffering cardiac arrest on April 5, 2012.

To an outsider, this seems like a country truly mourning the loss of their beloved leader. Radio stations and newspapers are bombarded with messages of condolence, while government offices have shut down for the next 30 days.

And though some might argue that the sheer turnout to see Mutharika’s body is evidence of his vast popularity, there are others who say that nothing could be farther from the truth.

Precious Gondwe, 34, has been waiting in a queue to enter parliament for nearly two hours, and her determination to view Mutharika’s embalmed body is fuelled by a desire for closure rather than respect.

“I came here to see with my own eyes that our president is no longer with us,” says Gondwe, “It’s funny that we are lining up to see him when he is the reason we line up for essentials like petrol and sugar.”

Gondwe’s views are not uncommon.

According to Chijere Chirwa, a politics professor at Malawi’s Chancellor College, the lack of mourning among some Malawians can be characterized as “strange” but not unexpected considering the recent failures of Mutharika’s regime to uphold democratic ideals and improve the living conditions for the 74 per cent of the population who survive on less than a $1.25 per day.

“A lot of the critical minds would regard the current economic, social and political situation as developments closely connected with the president,” says Chirwa.

For the past two years, Mutharika, once hailed by the World Bank for his successful fertilizer subsidy program, steered Malawi’s economy into steep decline by telling foreign donors who contribute 40 per cent of the annual budget to “go to hell”.

His dismissal of aid catapulted the government into the adoption of a zero deficit budget which subsequently affirmed that the small landlocked country couldn’t self-sustain with limited resources.

More than 80 per cent of Malawians rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, and tobacco is the country’s main crop, as well as its primary generator of foreign currency. But since 2011, sales of the golden leaf have plummeted by a dismal 57 per cent resulting in reduced finances to purchase fuel from suppliers like Saudi Arabia. This scarcity coupled with a fixed exchange rate has increased consumer inflation to a staggering 10.9 per cent.

According to Voice Mhone, chairperson for the Malawian Civil Society Organizations, the months leading up to Mutharika’s death were overshadowed by rampant dissatisfaction.

“I think the political landscape, as well as the economic situation in Malawi kept on deteriorating," says Mhone.

“Staying in a queue for fuel is now part of our daily life, and if you look at the price of sugar and other essential commodities they have all skyrocketed.”

On July 20, 2011, the anger and frustration surrounding the country’s economic crisis culminated in mass demonstrations calling for the president’s resignation. These peaceful protests soon turned into bloody riots when police opened fire on innocent crowds leaving 19 people dead and scores of others injured.

But Mutharika didn’t accept blame for the deaths, nor did he take the public criticism to heart; instead he began a vigorous campaign to clampdown on critics, media and opposition leaders.

Reverend Macdonald Sembereka, a civil and human rights activist who played an instrumental role in organizing the protests, had his home petrol bombed by suspected government youth cadets last September. But he says that while the nation has gone through a turbulent time, he has no hard feelings towards Mutharika.

“He did contribute what he could contribute. If he failed that would be part of human nature," says Sembereka. “I’ll remember him as a person who stuck to his guns. When he wanted to do something, he would stick to it, even though the whole world would stand on the opposite side.”

At Mutharika’s funeral in the southern region of Thyolo, recently inaugurated president, Joyce Banda summed up his life with the sentiment of the nation, saying, "He was not an angel, he made mistakes”.

For Banda, Malawi’s first female president, the road ahead is littered with the legacy of those mistakes, and the latter has prompted her government to resume donor talks with the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.

There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

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Africa Without Maps


  • There's so much more to Africa than predictable headlines about war, famine and AIDS. From Ghanaian beauty pageants to music in Malawi, Africa Without Maps provides a rare glimpse of life in Africa from Journalists for Human Rights interns on the ground.

    Funding for the jhr bloggers is provided by the Government of Canada's Youth International Internship Program.

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