What’s going on Mr. President?

Posted on May 15, 2011 by

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Coming to Malawi, you hardly fail to know the president. From a big board, His Excellency Professor Bingu Wa Mutharika warmly welcomes you when you enter Lilongwe from the airport. He kindly tells you to drive and arrive safely on the roads. His elegant image, printed on big billboards at several crossroads, announces the opening of a new port “propelling Malawi into the future”. You will see him in your visit to governmental offices as his portrait there is a certainty. You hear his voice and his name on the radio and on TV. His image is, physically and spiritually, simply everywhere.

IMG_7709Thanks to the DSTV* card in the house running out of credit, I had chance to know more about the president via the local channel, MBC. As it is the only channel, we have just two choices. Turn off the TV or see the president. Perhaps I am exaggerating it but it was at least true for that day. Most of the programs were live broadcast and reports on an important opening ceremony of a new university of science and technology funded by China that the president attended and delivered speeches.

When asked about the national channel, a Malawian friend of mine working for a government ministry said he couldn’t bear hearing them talk nonsense all the time. They frequently showed flattering information about the president and rarely mentioned visible pressing issues like fuel shortage. They always denied problems or blamed them for this reason or another. That’s why he has always watched other foreign channels on DSTV. I was watching TV with his family on that day and noticed the frustration. Even his mother who sometimes watched the channel also shouted impatiently “shut up!” while waiting too long for a government official to finish his speech at the broadcasted ceremony.

Surrounding the opening of the new university, various issues were discussed. The president chose Thyolo, his home district as the site to build the new university saying that he donated 650 hectares of land for the project**. So lucky for Malawi, her president had that much land to give and he was so generous and devoted to the country’s education development! The president’s highly commendable vision is to build five new universities to improve Malawian citizens’ access to higher education. However, it is said that the infrastructure of existing universities are ‘terrible’ and there are not even enough chairs for the students, which should not be neglected in the president’s agenda.

For a more comprehensive picture of the president, it is worthwhile mentioning the recent closure of two colleges under the University of Malawi. Taking an example of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and commenting on problems in Malawi in parallel, a lecturer of political sciences was reported. People said there must be a spy in the class. The lecturer was then summoned and questioned (and threatened?) by the Inspector General of Police. Disagreeing with the treatment which created psychological trauma to their colleague, lecturers at the university demanded an apology and a guarantee that the incident would not be repeated. In his letter, the General of Police did not apologize but emphasized that “academic freedom must be balanced with issues of national security”. He got support from the president who stated publicly that the General of Police would not apologize and ordered the teachers to return to class in a directive. Being dissatisfied with the feedback, the lecturers defied the directive in order to protest this threat to academic freedom and demanded assurance before they would continue teaching. The government chose a bold approach. They froze teachers’ salaries, fired several lecturers, demanded lecturers and students to remove all their personal properties from the institutions and closed down indefinitely the two colleges involved. The incident has not yet been settled. Hopefully a different outcome will be reached as I wonder what will happen then with all the students and lecturers when their colleges are completely closed. Maybe they can wait for the new university to be built?

Recently due to a leaked document from the British High Commission in Lilongwe describing Malawian president as intolerant to criticism, Mutharika deported the British envoy from the country saying that he has lost confidence in him. The UK considered the incident as ‘unacceptable’ and immediately told the Malawian High Commission in London to leave. Yet, 40% of Malawi’s budget is from donors, among which UK has given the largest share ***. The consequences of this diplomatic relation stoppage on Malawi may easily be speculated.

Also from a local source, the President was lobbying for his brother, the current Minister of Education, to take over the post. The fact that the Minister did not deal well with the above-mentioned conflict made many believe that would not happen. Or more correctly put, they hoped that it would not happen. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with about 75% of its population living on less than $1 a day****. With the majority of the population having little formal educaton, and with the powerful influence of the president, it is safe to assume that elections in this democratic country will not be free and fair.

*DSTV: a popular multi-channel digital satellite TV in Africa

**http://www.nyasatimes.com/national/thyolo-is-in-malawineeds-development-%E2%80%93dpp.html

*** http://www.nationmw.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=17955:malawi-deports-british-envoy&catid=1:national-news&Itemid=3

**** http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13205729

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Posted in: Politics