Diplomatic row threatens future relationship with one of the UK’s foremost aid recipients

27 April 2011

29 April 2011 - Liz Allcock and Jimmy Kainja A woman carries a bucket of drinking water home. This photo links to an ActionAid project working with the local women's group Chigwirizano, to construct a three kilometre long water pipeline providing clean water to Ntalava village and the surrounding area. Image credit: Sven Torfinn / Panos

The news that Malawi expelled the British High Commissioner for a leaked diplomatic cable that criticised the country's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, of becoming 'more autocratic and intolerant of criticism', came as little surprise to those conversant with the political situation in this quiet Southern African country.

The deterioration of media freedoms and minority rights, and the perennial lack of fuel and shortage of foreign exchange has exposed the government to increasing criticism from local non-government and civil society organisations.

Two colleges of the University of Malawi remain closed after a continued standoff between the government and academic staff. The situation unfolded after a political science lecturer was detained by police for allegedly discussing the North African uprisings with his students. The lecturer and some of his supporters consequently lost their jobs few weeks later.

Silenced by decades of authoritarianism

Malawi ended 31 years of dictatorship in a 1993 referendum followed by a general election in 1994, which ceased then ‘Life President' Kamuzu Banda's draconian rule. The majority of Malawians, certainly those now in positions of leadership, grew up under his regime. 

Decades of political marginalisation, together with the previous 73 years of British colonial rule, have created something of a fatalistic nation where the majority of citizens appear to accept their 'lot' - fearful of seeking ways to express opposition to those in power.

The current leadership seems to be capitalising on this mentality but is in constant conflict with an increasingly outspoken civil society. President Mutharika has not shied away from being explicit about how he will deal with critics.

Last December he told a public rally: "... Jesus, the Son of God ... said turn the other cheek. Do you want me to be Jesus? That was Jesus, the Son of God, I am Bingu...you slap me here, I will hit you. That is the way life is." As a British national, envoy Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, is perhaps lucky to get away with 'mere' expulsion.

The reference to Jesus holds powerful resonance in a country where the church plays a hugely influential role. Moreover, the message strongly re-enforces the prevailing culture of silence. This became clear in recent IDS research on food security in Malawi. Research participants were extremely wary of being seen to be in any way critical of the government - so much so that some of the research material has had to be censored so as not to compromise participants. The climate of fear was palpable.

Do Malawians now feel there is little to lose?

A year on, it seems Malawi has reached a stage whereby freedoms are so restricted and arrests so commonplace that people perhaps feel they have little to lose, and space for discourse is finally emerging.

On a recent trip to Malawi, we were surprised to find that discussions amongst colleagues were openly critical of both the government in general and the president in particular. We left Malawi the day the story of the High Commissioner's comments broke in the national press. Neither the leaked comments nor the government's actions are a surprise to anyone in Malawi. In fact, the comments raised in the High Commissioner's letter were very similar to those raised by the Malawi Catholic Bishops' Episcopal letter late last year.

Implications for international aid to Malawi

So what are the implications of this for the future of development in Malawi? With 75% of the population living under a dollar a day and the country's heavy indebtedness, any withdrawal of aid by the UK, Malawi's largest bilateral donor, is likely to decimate this already struggling nation. The High Commissioner's cable also highlighted this point.

Yet, the government is unlikely to respond positively to any threats the UK or other donor nation make, nor are they taking seriously any moves by the local NGO or civil society community to hold them to account. The deterioration of freedom of speech looks set to continue, but with the slow opening up of alternative discourse in the country, Malawi may yet be ripe for an Arab Spring of its own.

Liz Allcock is Country Projects Convenor for IDS Knowledge Services Team, and works closely with Jimmy Kainja, an independent Malawian researcher based in London.