Malawi: An African Test Case

Malawi: An African Test Case

REPORTER: Nick Lazaredes

Across the continent of Africa well over 100 million people go to bed hungry every day of their lives.


They are the poorest people on earth, and for most of them life is getting worse.

As the leaders of the world’s richest countries debate the future of the poorest, I’ve come to the land-locked southern African nation of Malawi as a case study in assessing the depth of the problems facing Africa.

Like most Sub-Saharan countries, Malawi has been devastated by HIV/AIDS, food shortages are common, and most people struggle to get by on less than 50 cents a day.

At the same time the Malawi Government spends more on debt repayments than it does on health and education combined. It’s a desperate situation and clearly, something has to be done.

In Malawi’s dusty capital, Lilongwe, lives tend to be short – 37 years is the average life expectancy and a large part of that startling statistic is the impact of HIV/AIDS on Malawi’s 12 million people.

MAVUTO BAMUSI, MALAWIANS FOR ECONOMIC JUSTICE: We are one of the countries where the AIDS pandemic is at its worst levels.

I’ve come to meet one of Malawi’s most vocal social justice campaigners, Mavuto Bamusi. He’s angry that Malawi has not been given immediate debt cancellation.

MAVUTO BAMUSI: And that is more of the reasons why we are calling upon the G8, the Group of Eight richest countries in the world and other rich countries and the entire Western world to cancel Malawi’s debts because we need more money to invest in the health sector, we need more money to combat the HIV/AIDS scourge. But without debt cancellation nothing meaningful is going to take place in Malawi.

RAFIQ HAJAT, INSTITUTE FOR POLICY INTERACTION: I believe that this is actually a travesty. It is a shirking of ultimate responsibility.

Other social justice advocates in Malawi like Rafiq Hajat feel like they’ve been abandoned by the international community.

RAFIQ HAJAT: Basically one day in Iraq would have paid for Malawi’s debt. And I have received no reason, no valid reason or no criteria for the exclusion of Malawi from the debt relief program. God knows we need it desperately, however what has happened is we’ve been told we’re on the accelerated list, whatever that might mean in donor terminology – your guess is as good as mine. To us in Malawi it means more conditionalities.

For citizens in affluent Western countries the term ‘donor conditionality’ means little but for Africa’s poor, it’s a catch-phrase which impacts upon every aspect of their lives.

These massive silos contain Malawi’s grain reserves built to contain thousands of tonnes of maize – it’s Malawi’s insurance policy against a national famine. But in 2002, when the silos were full, the IMF advised the Malawi Government to sell a large portion of the maize to help offset the debts of the state grain corporation known as ADMARC.

RAFIQ HAJAT: History will show that we sold something like 65,000 tonnes of maize to surrounding countries like Kenya. Three months down the line people were starving, and we had to import maize. We sold it something like three kwatcha a kilo, and we had to buy it back at something like 16 kwatcha a kilo. Somebody made a lot of money somewhere.

DR BAKILI MULUZI, EX-PRESIDENT OF MALAWI: You know you can easily see Malanje Mountain from here because it’s quite high, this level if you’re standing from here.

The President at the time of the maize sale was Dr Bakili Muluzi. He says the IMF advice was more like a threat.

REPORTER: Did you argue against that advice?

DR BAKILI MULUZI: Well, we did argue, but this is some of the things that they come and tell you – that if you do not do that, we will not give you money.

REPORTER: So that was the bottom line? That you would not get the money unless you did it.

DR BAKILI MULUZI: Absolutely. I remember that, it was argued and argued. and I said, “Look, fine. So we had no choice.”

REPORTER: Should the IMF accept some measure of responsibility for what happened, I mean, in the sense that you’ve learned lessons from that?

THOMAS BAUNSGAARD, IMF MALAWI: Well, I think, when I said we’ve learned lessons, it is the Government, donors, World Bank, IMF. It is all of us collectively that clearly have learned lessons. IMF, as we have said on many occasions, we are not agricultural experts we are not in the business of providing advice on agricultural policies. There are donors in Malawi that have that expertise and they’re the ones who advise the government on agricultural policies and also on food security issues.

And that donor is the World Bank. But just after the maize sale the World Bank pushed Malawi to privatise the grain agency ADMARC, which provided the only food distribution network in the country in the event of a famine.

RAFIQ HAJAT: In January 2004 at an extraordinary session of parliament, two bills were tabled, one was a $64 million loan from the World Bank, which we were in dire need of in view of the impending elections and the other one was commercialisation of ADMARC, whereby its social security aspect was stripped away and it became a profit-oriented body thereby depriving the people of Malawi of any social safety net.

IMF and World Bank pressure on poor countries to privatise their state utilities extends to the most basic of human needs. In Malawi there’s now a push to privatise the country’s water boards.

MAVUTO BAMUSI: If water is going to be privatised in Malawi – we are talking about Malawians whose incomes are so low that not many of them will have access to water because they will not have enough incomes to pay for the huge, huge water bills they may be required to pay.

Huge water bills because any private company that would buy it would like to maximise their profits.

Those at the coal face of Malawi’s grinding poverty believe the market ideology of institutions like the IMF and the World Bank works against the interests of the poor.

RAFIQ HAJAT: I actually call the World Bank the World blank, or the world bonk because they screw the world. But I would say they ought to bear full responsibility for the advice that they give, no matter how casual it is because it’s never taken casually. And I come back to the question – who are they accountable to?

The IMF says its brief is to focus on macro-economic policy.

THOMAS BAUNSGAARD: In our involvement we are very much focused on… our area of responsibility, which is the impact on the macro economy, on the budget, on the…in terms of foreign reserves, what are the needs, how much can the Government and the country afford. So we are very much focused on that very narrow aspect of food security issues.

But Mavuto Bamusi believes this narrow focus is at the root of the problem.

MAVUTO BAMUSI: If we need the IMF in Malawi, then we need them in the first place to show a human face, to pay attention to the plight of the poor as the first priority. And the others, of course we agree that macro-economic parameters are important, but macro-economic parameters should not take precedence over, or should not be superior over the plight of the poor, or indeed the core welfare indicators themselves like of health, education, etc. So if indeed the IMF does not want to show a human face in Malawi, then they had better pack up and go.

International financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank say their push to privatise government structures is also based on stamping out corruption. In fact, shortly after the notorious maize sell-off the then finance minister was accused of pocketing millions in profit from the deal.

VICTOR BANDA, DEPUTY ANTI-CORRUPTION COMMISSIONER: This person is now being prosecuted for unexplained property and also for theft by a public servant.

Dozens of other senior government officials are also facing charges mostly due to the efforts of Malawi’s anti-corruption bureau.

VICTOR BANDA: These are a clear testimony that we are not just sitting back. And I’m sure that if they come, anybody who wants to know what is going on will see that Malawi is making a lot of efforts in trying to deal with the issue of corruption.

Deputy Anti-Corruption Commissioner, Victor Banda believes he and his team have broken the culture of high-level corruption. He feels that Malawi’s new government has heeded the pressure from the West and was surprised they were not on the list of 18 countries receiving immediate debt relief.

VICTOR BANDA: I heard what George Bush said, I heard what Tony Blair said, and also other leaders, what they said, and I thought some of them were a bit unfair on Malawi. I think it was wrong, because I think there are serious efforts which this government has taken in trying to deal with corruption, and the donor community here can testify to that and I was surprised, actually, personally that Malawi was not one of the first 18 or one of the first whatever.

REPORTER: So, Dr Muluzi, this is your house?


REPORTER: How long have you lived here?

DR BAKILI MULUZI: Well, I’ve had it for many, many years,

Many of the corruption allegations that cost Malawi its debt cancellation date back to Dr Muluzi’s Government.

REPORTER: Can we have a look?

DR BAKILI MULUZI: Yes, sure, sure sure. Please, please, please. You are most welcome. Please come in.

REPORTER: Thank you.

These days Dr Muluzi enjoys his retirement in a stylish hill-top mansion, but he still riles at any suggestion that his government fostered corruption.

DR BAKILI MULUZI: I work from here. Yes, I work from here.

Each time I meet a reporter who asks about corruption, I say, “Look, do you think all the leaders in Africa are thieves?” Is that the perception we are painting? I think this is unfortunate, because unfortunately that has got a bearing on what we are discussing today on the cancellation of debt. I don’t think that all of us – whether retired or in office – in Africa, the leaders that we should be thieves.

While the G8 countries focus primarily on reducing African debt, along with promoting good governance, many Africans feel that that is a smokescreen for the real issue – the question of fair trade. And in Malawi there’s no better example than the biggest cash crop – tobacco.

GODFREY CHAPOLA, TOBACCO CONTROL COMMISSION: The starter will put a price on the tobacco, the auctioneer starts auctioneering, the buyers give signals until a price is put on it. That whole process takes about five seconds to buy a bale.

This is the Lilongwe tobacco auction room. In Malawi, tobacco has been sold this way for more than a century.

GODFREY CHAPOLA: The guy in the blue shirt is a buyer that’s the buying line, and the guy in the light blue shirt, short-sleeved shirt, he’s the starter, he starts the price, and the second person to him would be the auctioneer.

While it’s a crop that’s under attack from world health officials, tobacco is Malawi’s life-blood. It’s responsible for 15% of GDP and a staggering 65% of Malawi’s foreign exchange earnings. But this crucial income is threatened by the actions of rich countries.

In America, for example, tobacco farmers are heavily subsidised, receiving around $4.15 a kilo but Malawian farmers receive just 73 cents a kilo for the same product.

GODFREY CHAPOLA: We’re not asking for special treatment. What we are saying is level the playing field, let us all compete on fair grounds and give us the price our crop deserves and we’ll look after ourselves.

I think we are responsible enough, I think we are mature enough to fend for ourselves for as long as we are given equal opportunities.

At Tobacco Association of Malawi known as TAMA the struggle against price-fixing by multinational companies is a constant issue. They feel that they are being lied to about the world price but have to accept it anyway.

ALBERT KAMULAGA, TOBACCO ASSOCIATION OF MALAWI: Whatever are given to us as figures of their export price, it’s not genuine, it’s not true. But what we are told here is that this is the price, there’s no demand, finish, take it or leave it.

All the tobacco buyers in Malawi work for just a few multinational giants – effectively they set their own price. And to ensure that Malawian growers don’t band together to lobby for a fairer price, multinationals are active right down to the village level.

ALBERT KAMULAGA: The multinationals have been going around in the villages discouraging our own farmers becoming members of TAMA.

REPORTER: So multinational companies have essentially been bribing farmers not to belong to your organisation, so that they won’t rock the price?

ALBERT KAMULAGA: Right now we have farmers in our areas, who when you want to go and organise meetings they can’t come, they are afraid of the multinationals.

On Malawi’s tobacco farms the growers are feeling helpless against the big tobacco companies.

LUCY KANYOWILE, TABACCO FARMER: They are feeling bitter, yeah, but they have no choice, they have nowhere else to go. You feel that I’m working for nothing.

Lucy Kanyowile has been growing tobacco in Malawi’s northern region for 34 years and about 100 people are dependant on her tobacco crop, but at this year’s price level, the whole operation is unsustainable.

LUCY KANYOWILE: Previously we would have let’s say about 10 families working on the farm as tenants, but that one is dropping by year because then you have to consider their food, you have to consider the fertilizers, you have to consider the tools.

And the amount you are getting for the tobacco is not enough to buy the inputs for the following year, so you are forced to reduce your labour force every year, so it’s affecting everybody around.

I’m on my way to a remote village near Malawi’s eastern border with Mozambique where I want to investigate reports about a poor tobacco farmer who lost six members of his family in one day just a few weeks ago. But the tobacco price was so low, the family was almost out of food and apparently, when the father was away, the children, who were very hungry, dug up what they thought were edible yams, but they were in fact poisonous.

After driving on dirt tracks, it was night before we reached the village. With no electricity, we used our vehicle’s headlights for the interview. The father of the children described how a close relative, who was also poisoned, broke the news.

FATHER (Translation): We started eating, we had taken just one bite, it didn’t even reach our stomachs. We started vomiting, others developed diarrhoea. When I heard this I ran all the way home. Then I found my children, but how I found them my heart sink, I was convinced they’d all go straight to the grave. There was no hope at all.

With the help of other villagers, the dying children and other sick relatives were ferried almost 40km to the local hospital on the backs of bicycles.

FATHER (Translation): But hardly an hour had passed. I looked at my children, I looked at one child”¦ dead. I turned to another child, dead. I turned to another.. dead. And yes, within a very short time, I witnessed four children die before my eyes.

Two of the youngest children didn’t even make it to the hospital, dying at home in the village.

MAVUTO BAMUSI: That wouldn’t have happened if there was enough food in Malawi, because the more reason why that family went around scouting for the poisonous roots was because they didn’t have food in the first place. And it’s becoming a perennial or indeed a frequent occurrence in Malawi, that year in year out we’re encountered with a food crisis.

When viewed from inside Africa, the debate at the G8 is truly a matter of life and death. And many in Malawi are not optimistic that rich Western countries will hear and act on their pleas for a fair go in a competitive world.

RAFIQ HAJAT: The reality today is that we are being trampled into the ground and our voices may be heard, but they’re not heeded.

GEORGE NEGUS: Nick tells us that before the state-grain corporation was privatised, it provided cheap loans for fertiliser and seed. Now it doesn’t, and local Malawi interest rates are over the 70% per annum mark.