Mutharika’s final years cast pall on first term’s legacy

Mr Bingu wa Mutharika being sworn in for his second term as president of Malawi in May 2009. He died last week after a heart attack, leaving an impaired legacy despite a popular first term. AFP

The late Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika was credited for working an economic miracle in his first term of office –from 2004-2009 and the early part of the second term. However, his final days may have caused him to lose favour with Malawians to a point where church leaders were calling for his resignation.

Before the 2004 elections, the then president Bakili Muluzi went across the country asking Malawians to elect Bingu wa Mutharika as president, billing him as an ‘economic engineer’ having worked for the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and Comesa. Upon taking power, Mr Mutharika started implementing policies that lifted Malawi to prosperity in terms of economic growth and food security. He also implemented a zero-tolerance policy on corruption and fiscal discipline.

Mr Mutharika took over government when Malawi was not growing enough to feed its 13 million people, or export. However, despite the increasing prices of farm input such as fertilisers, and Western donors’ antipathy against subsidies, he went ahead to subsidise fertiliser and seed.

The result? The country began to register food surplus straight after coming from one of the worst harvests in 2004/2005 where people needed emergency food aid. The following season, the country registered a surplus of 500 metric tonnes of maize which later soared to 1.3 million metric tonnes. And food reserves have been growing since. Buoyed by this success and a pledge not “let his people starve as long as he was in power”, Mutharika launched another ambitious programme aimed at ensuring food self-sufficiency – The Green Belt Initiative.

Modelled on the Indian Green Revolution, the initiative relied on available water sources to grow crops other than rain-fed agriculture. Though not implemented at full-scale in Malawi, the prospects of the programme saw Mutharika later selling the idea to the African Union (AU) heads of State as capable of making Africa a food basket. Africa embraced it.

Meanwhile, on the economic front, Malawi was accelerating. Good economic policies coupled with a healthy relationship with its traditional donors in the West led the country to be viewed as a success economic story. In 2009, Malawi’s economic growth at 8.3 per cent was only second to Qatar, according to the Economist.  Its inflation rate was manageable within the single digit mark of about 7 per cent.

The deteriorating health delivery system was revitalised and he even credited himself for making anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) accessible to every HIV /Aids patient free of charge. As the economy boomed so did development. The road networks improved, new infrastructure sprouted, exports improved and investors were happy.

But the economy started to flounder when Mutharika attracted the ire of donors by becoming politically intolerant. His crackdown on critics and the subsequent deportation of British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane Dyet after a leaked diplomatic memo accused Mutharika of becoming dictatorial, led the donor community to totally lose confidence in Mutharika.

Failure to follow democratic governance principles and International Monetary Front (IMF) economic policies led to the withdrawal of aid. The economy crumbled. Inflation soared to double digits of about 10.4 per cent as of February 2012. The acute shortage of forex to import some of the country’s essential commodities such as fuel led to skyrocketing of goods.

The last straw was when people took to the streets on July 20 2011 to demonstrate against the fuel and forex shortage and high cost of living.  Twenty people were killed during the protests and the economy did not recover from that shock.

Mr Mutharika had to devalue the local currency, the kwacha by 10 per cent despite his pledge when he took over power in 2004 that he would never devalue the currency in his reign. The IMF wanted it cut by 40 per cent.

Mutharika’s latter years of his second term saw the eroding of his economic achievements. As he lays dead at 78, Malawi’s economic downfall can be attributed to Mutharika.

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