Malawi Government Pressured to Reform

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

IN an attempt to placate labor unrest that degenerated into unprecedented riots, the Malawi government has doubled municipal wages.

But as protests continue in the southern tea-growing region, that may not be enough to ease the domestic and international pressure building against the iron rule of H. Kamuzu Banda, president of this landlocked central African country since independence in 1963.

"It's not just price increases or wage demands," that have caused the swelling unrest here, a Western diplomat says. "It's the drought; it's the Mozambican refugees; it's frustration with the full leadership. It's not that Malawi has changed, but that the world around it has changed, and Malawians don't want to be left behind."

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Factory and tea workers went on strike earlier this month here and in the capital, Lilongwe, demanding higher wages and political reform. Further unrest was sparked when the government failed to comply with court orders to state the charges against Chakufwa Chihana, a prominent trade union leader who has been held since his April 6 arrest upon returning from South Africa and Zambia.

Responding to two days of riots that left at least 38 dead and hundreds wounded, the Paris Club of Western donors two weeks ago temporarily suspended more than $74 million in non-humanitarian aid to Malawi until there is "tangible and irreversible evidence of a basic transformation" in Malawi's human rights practices.

But the announcement seems to have had little immediate effect on the Banda government: A prominent businessman, Krishna Achutan, was arrested May 16 for publicly demanding the release of his father-in-law from political detention.

Minister of State John Tembo told the Johannesburg Star that the Banda government does not intend to bow to pressure to change. "Why change something that has worked so well for 30 years?" he asked.

But pressure on Malawi to reform is likely to increase, experts say. The plan to raise the daily minimum wage for municipal workers comes against a backdrop of austerity.

Last month the Banda government devalued Malawi's currency, the kwacha, 15 percent to make exports more competitive. Prices of staple foods rose nearly 20 percent within a week. Western economists now question whether the government's current budget can meet the promised pay increases.

But even with the new wages, municipal workers would be hard pressed to support households accustomed to subsidizing incomes with backyard plots of corn and other vegetables now withered by drought, Western diplomats say.

Further, the wage demands that shocked the public sector are now expected to hit the private sector. Malawian tea, coffee, and tobacco plantations have been affected by sagging world prices, and Western economists here say widespread layoffs would result from demands for higher wages.

"Considering the damage underpaid workers did in Blantyre alone, I wouldn't want to predict what a legion of unemployed workers might do in search of [corn]," a European businessman said, referring to the riots in Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital.

The Paris Club decision will probably exacerbate problems for Mr. Banda, who 20 years ago appointed himself president for life. By making non-humanitarian aid conditional on political reform, the Western donors have put the same pressure on Malawi that they did on Kenya last December, when President Daniel arap Moi was forced to allow opposition parties in that country.

As for the drought, relief officials estimate that Malawi will lose at least 70 percent of its corn harvest this year. The government expects it will need 800,000 tons of corn imports. The United Nations plans to spend $8 million on nearly 1 million Mozambican refugees in Malawi this year, and Western donors have committed $170 million in humanitarian assistance.

Malawi once served as a bulwark against communism and a conduit for trade with isolated South Africa. Now, however, the cold war is over and South Africa is negotiating new trade agreements with Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and elsewhere.

Yet Banda seems unimpressed, if only publicly, with the pressures against his 28-year government.

In a recent ceremony marking what most observers estimate must have been his 94th birthday (though speculating about the president's age is strictly forbidden), Banda said there "would be no more smiling faces in Malawi" if the country yields to outside influences determined to undermine unity, peace, and calm.

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