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A royal row

Like millions, reporters at the Malawi Institute of Journalism tuned in to watch the royal wedding. But on the minds of many reporters was the tension between British diplomats and Malawi's government. Photo by Katie Lin. 

By Katie Lin

The bride has finally arrived.

In one swift movement, she slips out of a Rolls-Royce and gingerly readjusts her dress.

It’s the moment the world has been waiting for, including reporters at the Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) in Blantyre: the royal wedding.

Crowded around the newsroom television, one reporter comments on Prince William’s hairline and another on Kate Middleton’s dress. Someone is even singing along to the national anthem.

At this moment, the only reminder that we’re in Malawi is the portrait of a half-smiling President Bingu wa Mutharika hanging on the wall.

But there’s little to smile about when it comes to current diplomatic relations between Malawi and Britain.

Tension between the two countries first arose when Malawian newspaper the Weekend Nation published excerpts from a leaked cable in which President Bingu wa Mutharika was described by a British diplomat as “becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism.”

In the memo, Britain’s High Commissioner to Malawi, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, also noted that local civil society activists were afraid after a campaign of threatening phone calls and commented on the government’s repressive laws surround academic and press freedom.

What ensued has been described by the BBC as a “tit-for-tat” series of expulsions.

On April 26, Cochrane-Dyet was expelled from Malawi. Less than 24 hours later, Britain ordered Malawi’s Acting High Commissioner to Britain, Flossie Gomile Chidyaonga, to leave the UK.

While this diplomatic feud is still young, President Mutharika’s heated reaction to the cable could have serious reverberations, such as the withdrawal of the UK’s bilateral aid to the former British colony.  

“Diplomatic relations between Malawi and Britain date back as far as 1964 and Britain is one of the major donors to Malawi’s developmental activities,” says Yvonne Sundu, a reporter at the Malawi Institute of Journalism.

Up to 40 per cent of Malawi’s national budget is financed by donor countries, and the UK tops the list as one of the country’s key donors.

According to the UK Department for International Development (DFID), more than £74 million GBP (over $116 million CAD) of bilateral aid was poured into Malawi between 2009 and 2010. 

“It is a worrying sign that the Malawian Government is expending its energies in this way, rather than focusing on the real and substantial challenges facing it, including the need for improved governance,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement released by the British Foreign Office.

Hague went on to ask UK officials “to review rapidly the full range of our wider relationship with Malawi,” indicating that further consequences were likely to follow – and sure enough they did.

An invitation to the Malawian administration to attend a party in celebration of the royal wedding at the high commission on April 29 was revoked.

Though not surprised by this action taken by the British government, Sundu was mortified.

“Honestly it is embarrassing, not only to Malawians but also to the President,” she says.

Despite the drama between the two governments, Sundu says that the excitement amongst Malawians surrounding this historical day remains unaffected.

“What is happening is a battle between the Malawian government and Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, and not Malawians against the British in general,” she explains.

“Malawians are just excited because they are seeing Prince William, heir to the throne, having his wedding on camera, and that brings excitement amongst millions and millions of people."

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