Has the spirit of the Arab Spring arrived in Malawi?

Many analysts, ourselves included, were of the opinion that the political unrest seen in North Africa earlier this year was unlikely to spread through the rest of the continent, despite some undertones in Swaziland and in Botswana.

Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika

Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika

The events transpiring in Malawi, more so given the placid nature of its citizenry, has thus caught us somewhat by surprise. Nationwide anti-government protests have seen rioters looting shops and torching property in running battles with police across the country.

Looting continued in some parts of Lilongwe and Blantyre on Thursday morning and security vehicles were seen patrolling the streets as the army had been called out to quell the violence. The protests have reportedly left 18 people dead, with a further 41 people injured, six critically, according to a health ministry spokesman.

Fanning the anger of the people are economic and democratic governance concerns against President Bingu wa Mutharika’s government, as persistent fuel shortages over the past two years have gotten worse. Foreign currency shortages are the root cause of the fuel problem, as contrary to advice from the IMF and other economists, Mutharika’s government has been steadfast in its refusal to devalue the Malawi Kwacha.

“I cannot devalue the kwacha because no one, including the IMF, is giving me convincing arguments on what will be done to deal with the rise of the cost of living that will follow the devaluation,” Mutharika has been quoted as saying.

He blames IMF policies and the private sector (who he claims are hoarding currency) for causing the shortages of
foreign exchange.

The country was already set for a difficult year after a decision in March by the country’s main donors to withhold financial aid amounting to US$400 million. Donors said they were responding to a range of governance and human rights issues in the country, including issues of minority rights, the continued postponement of local elections and the passing of a law that empowered the government to ban newspapers that published materials that may not be palatable to the Minister of Information.

The main donor group that operates under the Common Approach to Budget Support (CABS) – which includes the UK government, Germany, the African Development Bank (AfDB), Norway, the European Union and the World Bank – provides as much as 80% of Malawi’s development budget.

Mutharika has refused to resign, instead calling for dialogue. “Stop the rioting and let’s sit down to discuss,” the 77-year-old president appealed to his nation in a 12-minute address on state radio. “I have a responsibility, based on the powers vested in me by the constitution, to bring law and order,” he stressed.

It remains to be seen how the situation pans out in Malawi, especially in light of the heavy handed approach taken by the state. The key question of course, is, will we now see these types of protests sprouting in other countries in Southern Africa?

Imara is an investment banking and asset management group renowned for its knowledge of African markets.