Malawi riots spread as president blames Britain, IMF for economic woes

President Mutharika says that opposition and civil society groups that led protests over Malawi's deepening economic troubles are behind the violence that left at least 10 dead.

By , Correspondent

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    A protester burns vegetation in a street in Lilongwe, Malawi, Wednesday. Protesters went on the rampage after a court injunction stopped them protesting the economic and democratic crisis in the country.
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As riots across Malawi continued for a second day, Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika blamed opposition demonstrators for igniting violence that has left at least 10 dead and 45 injured.

But opposition leaders say demonstrations yesterday against fuel shortages and currency controls were peaceful and did not spark today's widespread looting, rioting, and running battles with police.

Ministry of Health spokesman Henry Chimbali confirmed that eight people died from injuries of various degrees at Mzuzu Central Hospital. One was brought at the hospital already dead. Although there have been reports that many of the dead were shot with live ammunition, Mr. Chimbali did not confirm that fatalities were caused by gunshot wounds.

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Trading blame for the violence

The protest organizers distanced themselves from incidents of looting, saying that their members were peacefully demonstrating yesterday.

“We urge those that are still in the streets and looting to refrain from this unlawful act,” civil society groups said in a communiqué obtained by reporters. “Doing so is against the laws of Malawi. Take note that all the concerns that were presented to the President through the laid channels of communications.”

Mr. Mutharika, however, pinned full blame for the riots on civil society leaders.

“They are telling vendors to loot businesses,” Mutharika said in a 10-minute speech on state television this afternoon. “Is this going to bring fuel in the country? Will looting solve the problem of [poor foreign exchange rates]? I ask the civil society and opposition leaders to come to the round table for discussions. Violence will only destroy the gains that we have managed to realize over the years.”

In his address to the nation, Mutharika said that his government would do anything to protect the lives of Malawians and their property as enshrined in the Constitution.

Police sounded a warning that they would deal harshly with rioters. A statement from the police said the acts were barbaric and unlawful.

Minister of Information and Civic Education Symon Vuwa Kaunda said civil society and opposition leaders must ask their followers to stop the looting. “They said they wanted a peaceful demonstration on the 20th of July. Why then have these demonstrations spilled to the 21st of July? Why attack and intimidate people who are not concerned with these demonstrations?”

For its part, the National Media Institute of Southern Africa (NAMISA) condemned police for beating and intimidating journalists. In Lilongwe, police invaded a Presbyterian church and attacked journalists, politicians, and civil society leaders who had sought refuge there. They were beaten with sticks and gun butts.

In a statement, NAMISA said police have the responsibility to protect both civilians and journalists who were exercising their constitutional right to express themselves through peaceful demonstrations.

Who's to blame for Malawi's economic woes?

For much of yesterday afternoon, there was a strange disconnect between the violence going on out doors, and the president’s attempt to cajole opposition and civil society leaders to, in effect, behave themselves. In an afternoon “lecture,” Mutharika told Malawians that it was not his government’s fault that food and fuel prices are rising, and that beneficial foreign exchange rates are difficult to obtain. Instead, he blamed the British government’s aid policies and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Malawi’s failure to stabilize its economy since independence in 1964.

The IMF, at present, has counseled Malawi to devalue its currency in order to attract more foreign investment and to reduce the cost of goods bought and sold in Malawi.

“IMF believes the kwacha [Malawi's currency] is overvalued but that is not true,” Mutharika said yesterday. “If this is true, let them tell us the equilibrium rate of the kwacha. Malawi has big structural problems since 1964 and the solution cannot only be devaluation of the currency.”

Mutharika was touted for turning the economy around and revitalizing the agriculture sector – turning Malawi from a food beggar to the region’s breadbasket. When he took over the mantle from retired President Bakili Muluzi, Mutharika said his intention was to leave Malawi in a much better condition “when my term ends than when I was just being sworn in.”

Mutharika insists that Malawi can do better without donors. In any case, most of Malawi’s bilateral donors have halted their budgetary support, citing increasing levels of corruption and lack of accountability for how funds are spent. Mutharika’s government went so far as to expel the British ambassador after a leaked memo by the ambassador was published. In the memo, the ambassador called Mutharika intolerant of criticism.

“After 47 years we are still heavily relying on foreign aid,” Mutharika said yesterday. “We are operating an externalized economy, export proceeds are externalized, your money, our money is not within banks here. Your money is in Pakistan, India, Dubai, United Kingdom….”

But Billy Banda, executive director of political and economic watchdog Malawi Watch, blamed the economic malaise on poor government decisions and policies that are not pro-poor. Most Malawians still live on less than $1 a day and can only afford only a single meal a day.

“Against this backdrop our president has a tax-payer-sponsored jet, a hefty salary, a salaried wife and listens to no one,” Mr. Banda says. “Even his own cabinet can’t advise him on anything contrary even if heavily criticized.”

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