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Economic woes dampen July 6 mood

As Malawi celebrates 58 years of independence

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Lazarus Chakwera

Malawians are today celebrating 58 years of political independence at the peak of chronic financial woes, which have seen prices of goods and services going through the roof.

So muted is the celebration that the only activity marking the day will be national prayers, to be held at Malawi Square in Lilongwe, as the authorities attempt to cut costs in line with austerity measures which President Lazarus Chakwera announced recently.

Traditionally, July 6 has been associated with excitement, joy and generosity but the economic woes appear to have dampened the mood.

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Random interviews conducted in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe yesterday revealed that many Malawians are not happy with progress the country has registered in the 58 years of self rule.

They argue that, despite attaining political independence, Malawi remains trapped in economic colonialism, surviving on pockets of financial aid from the West.

“Despite being politically independent, Malawi has remained economically dependent. We cannot even finance our domestic needs because the people have remained poor.

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“The country has done very little to uplift the lives of its citizens from abject poverty,” said Lilongwe-based Alick Gama.

Commenting on why Malawi has failed to translate political independence into economic bliss, political commentator Enerst Thindwa said most people who have joined politics have done so not to serve as nationalists envisioned, but for prestige fame and self-actualisation.

Thindwa said, as such, Malawi’s politics is not development-oriented but predatory and has culminated in unrestrained looting of public resources at the expense of economic development.

“Our economic stagnation can primarily be explained by the quality of politicians we have had since independence and the nature of political competition since political pluralism in 1993.

“It is now apparent that citizen activism is the last line of defence if this country is to make any meaningful progress,” Thindwa said.

Malawi University of Business and Applied Studies Associate Professor of Economics Betchani Tchereni said, for 58 years, Malawi has been over-dependent on foreigners for the growth and development of its economy.

This, according to Tchereni, has resulted in Malawi struggling to attain economic independence.

He said Malawians need to use July 6 to reflect on what the country can do right.

“For example, industrialisation should not be lip service anymore. It is time for us to implement it through the Mega Farms Project

“We need to remove politics from economic projects and just do things to help us attain economic self-reliance. Having the National Economic Empowerment Fund (Neef) politicised so much makes my heart bleed. That’s an opportunity we are losing to industrialise the country,” Tchereni said.

Centre for Research and Consultancy Director Milward Tobias said there are some positives that Malawi has registered in the 58 years of independence, including the metamorphosis of politics from one-party rule to multiparty democracy.

Tobias said, among other things, Malawi has seen advances in the consumption of technology-related services, mobile phones and television.

He said, in villages, more people now assets such as bicycles, motorcycles, iron sheet-roofed houses and so on.

“However, considering the period of self-rule, it is clear that economic development has been sluggish. We spent 31 years focusing on basic needs; clothes, food and shelter. These basic needs remain needs until today. Agriculture, as the mainstay of the economy, has not been developed to give us its full potential. Labour, which is another area we have strength in, remains underdeveloped. A substantial part of the population remains illiterate and less skilled.

“The manufacturing sector has stagnated in the post economic liberalisation period. While there have been few periods of economic progress, like the period from 2006 to 2010, these have not been sustained. Leadership has been our weakest point. We have had either incompetent or corrupt leadership or a combination of both. Going forward, we must address the leadership challenge,” Tobias said.

Economist Exley Silumbu said wealth creation has not moved fast enough, given that population growth and productivity improvement has not been widely spread.

“This, as emphasised in various fora, requires identification of transformational industries with high-value domestic addition and for the wider markets.

“Political commitment is, indeed, required as well as maintaining a consistently favourable domestic business environment and accountability,” Silumbu said.

National Planning Commission Director-General Thomas Munthali said poverty and inequalities have persisted in Malawi, despite being politically independent for 58 years, because the country’s wealth creation base has largely been neglected over the years.

According to Munthali, the country has helped smallholder farmer be subsistent, being supported every year with subsidies towards annual food security and not beyond.

He observed that the country has neglected the development of the manufacturing and industrial base.

“We simply have neglected the economic sectors that are supposed to generate our wealth as a nation. Our main source of income has largely been from the informal and underdeveloped agricultural sector, development partners and debt.

“So, our GDP [gross domestic product] grows and, yet, our tax revenues don’t because the huge smallholder farming community, to which huge subsidies are targeted, doesn’t pay taxes; taxes that we need to support the social sectors,” he said.

Moving forward, Munthali said Malawi needs to grow these into cooperatives and private sector investments to realise growth that can translate into wealth both for individuals (jobs and incomes) and the government (taxes).

According to Munthali, we have largely invested too much in the social sectors and neglected the economic sectors and economic infrastructure that is key to generating sustainable revenues with which to support the social sectors in the long run.

“This is why the aspirations in the Mw [Malawi] 2063 and supporting strategies in MIP-1 are meant to create wealth and move the country towards self-reliance. Without this, our social sectors will continue to suffer under-investment, crippling the development of a capable human resource that should be fit for purpose.

“It’s all about a mindset of wealth creation at all levels that will emancipate this country beyond political freedom to economic freedom. A country that is politically independent but not economically self-reliant is not free yet,” Munthali said.

Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation Executive Director Michael Kaiyatsa said there is very little to celebrate about as the country marks 58 years of independence.

According to Kaiyatsa, Malawi gained political independence but is still miles away from gaining the economic independence it “desperately” needs.

He said it is deeply troubling that, 58 years after gaining independence from Britain, the country is still heavily dependent on aid from the same British government it sought independence from and other donor countries.

“Our country is ranked one of the poorest in the world. If we, as a country, are to be truly independent, there are two conditions that must be met. The first condition is that we need to have leaders who truly love this country–patriotic leaders; leaders who put the interests of the country first before their own selfish, parochial interests.

People who fought for this country’s independence sacrificed their interests to gain the independence we are celebrating today.

“We need leaders with the same mindset to liberate this country from the shackles of poverty and overdependence on aid. It is unfortunate that such kind of leaders are in short supply in our day and age. Most of our current leaders are corrupt and self-seeking. The second condition is that we must have visionary leaders who can dream and come up with innovative ideas to lift this country out of poverty,” Kaiyatsa said.

Yesterday, Chairperson for Independence Day celebrations Sam Kawale said they have sent official invitations to all former presidents, the Vice President, the Leader of Opposition in Parliament and representatives of diplomatic missions.

Last week, Kawale announced that the government had trimmed the budget for the celebrations from the initial K400 million to K30 million.

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