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Malawi in crisis – troubled times for Scotland’s twin country in Africa

Flag of Malawi <em>Picture: SKopp</em>

Flag of Malawi Picture: SKopp

By John Knox

MPs on the International Development Committee at Westminster have said Malawi – Scotland’s twin country in Africa – “has entered a political and economic crisis”. They have begun an inquiry into Britain’s future role in the country.

All official aid to Malawi was suspended following the killing of 20 anti-government demonstrators in July and concerns over human rights, corruption and the effectiveness of the foreign aid programme. Other countries and agencies have followed the British lead – Germany, Norway, the European Union, the World Bank and the African Development Bank. The International Monetary Fund has warned Malawi it must allow its currency, the kwacha, to devalue.

Britain gives Malawi around £90m a year in overseas aid. Much of it is spent on subsidising fertilisers for maize, the country’s staple food crop. Nearly 90 per cent of Malawi’s 13 million population live on less than £1.50 a day.

The Scotland Malawi Partnership, set up by Jack McConnell when he was first minister, has tried to stay neutral in the dispute. It says its twinning arrangement for schools, colleges and hospitals is independent of governments and is a people-to-people development programme. The Scottish government’s £3m aid programme for Malawi is also unaffected so far.

In Malawi itself, there is growing opposition to President Bingu Mutharika. There were large demonstrations in several towns in July in protest again rising food and fuel prices and corruption. Some of the protests were brutally put down by the police. Earlier this month, 60 MPs in the president’s own ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) complained they were not being consulted.

Mutharika, who is now 78 and in his final term as president, is seeking to hand over to his younger brother Peter, who is also the foreign minister. He has already been named as the DPP’s candidate for the next presidential elections in 2014. There are continual stories in the newspapers that the Mutharikas are favouring their own tribe in the south and that funds provided by the Chinese government – for a new university, for example – are being channelled by the brothers into their own region.

Human rights campaigners have also objected to a new judicial code which will, they say, allow ministers to suppress information “that is not in the public interest”. They have also called for a repeal of the law against homosexuality. Last year, two gay men were sentenced to 14 years in jail for staging an engagement ceremony. They were later pardoned and the law, and the new judicial code, are being reviewed by the Malawi Law Commission.

Malawi is also in trouble with the International Criminal Court for failing to arrest the wanted president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir. He attended a conference of African leaders in Malawi in October.

The MPs at Westminster say their inquiry will consider how Britain can help improve economic growth and job creation in Malawi and how the country can be helped to get back on target for achieving its Millennium Goals on poverty, education and health. They also want to consider what conditions Britain should place on its aid to Malawi in the future, particularly on issues such as freedom of expression and access to justice. They have asked for written submissions by 20 February 2012.

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