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No holds barred: Prof. Mutharika and the Hardtalk imbroglio

Zeinab Badawi had the No holds barred rare chance our presidents normally accord western journalists only: interviewing our head of state, Peter Mutharika. As far as interviews go, Professor Mutharika found himself in terra incognita.

To be fair, the President must be commended for plucking courage to face such a tough interviewer as Badawi, with clout for steely push-back. President Edgar Lungu of Zambia is in fact afraid of facing Zeinab Badawi.

On 30 September this year, Badawi was expected to feature Lungu, but the latter baulked last minute. The BBC posted the following tweet: ‘For those of you watching Focus on Africa TV expecting to see Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu, unfortunately the team were told just before going on air that he was no longer available.

We’ll keep trying to speak to him and thank you for all your comments.’

I therefore like President Mutharika’s courage to talk to a high profile media house to answer tough questions about our current situation.

For the record, President Mutharika also found himself in a similar situation at the Council on Foreign Relations when he visited the United States earlier this year. He faced a barrage of questions, from one on his government’s inactivity on the Issa Njauju murder to another on the lack of electric power that can support serious foreign investment projects in the country and so on.

But how did the interview with Badawi go?

President Mutharika had a loose grasp of facts from sentence number one. He said the source of the country’s current problems are three: a) the Cashgate scandal under President Joyce Banda; b) donor withdrawal as a direct consequence of that Cashgate; and 3) floods that devastated half the country in January last year.

Let us examine the President’s response.

Cashgate happened — no one denies that. In fact, we all want justice to prevail in the Cashgate.

Whoever stole the money must be brought to justice, whether junior or senior, president or clerk, it does not matter.

But Mutharika conveniently avoided mentioning the K577 billion cashgate that started from the time of his bother Bingu wa Mutharika’s rule. At that time, he himself, Peter, bought a Malawi Housing Corporation house in very questionable circumstances, and that was just one example of the systematic plunder of public resources that took place.
Thankfully, Badawi is an intelligent person – she pushed back. She reminded Mutharika that Cashgate did not only start during Joyce Banda’s time – it was there during Bingu’s time.

To this, President Mutharika gave an incoherent response confirming that corruption has always been there, but did not go further to state the strategy in place to stop public finances from hemorrhaging.

President Mutharika needs to stop having Cashgate as a default answer for his failure to take the country forward. Leadership entails that he should have, by now, come up with recovery strategies while continuing to deal with the pursuit of justice in the cashgate scandal.

Besides, he needs to demonstrate commitment to pursuing the K577 billion Cashgate as well. All we hear of is the K20 billion Cashgate, as if that is the only Cashgate that took place.

In addition, it is simplistic to say donors left because of Cashgate. Donors left because of Cashgate, yes, but they could have returned by now if we were serious with adhering to terms of the extended credit facility programme.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was here in September, and it said Malawi is off-track in the Bretton Woods institution’s extended credit facility programme.

Reads the statement from IMF: “Fiscal slippages equivalent to about two percent of the GDP emerged during the second half of the 2014/15 fiscal year, in part because of overspending on the wage bill and these were exacerbated by revenue and external financing shortfalls.”

The bloated wage bill and other forms of reckless expenditure are keeping donors away. Remember, when the IMF nods that you’re on track, other donors follow. So if President Mutharika really, really wanted to have donors back, he should have made sure that his government spends with prudence.

Instead, he rubs salt in the wound by spending even more recklessly, such as hiring jets for K300 million a pop. He, by the way, is still hiring jets, except we don’t know for how much these days. Even on the Malta trip, from and into Lilongwe he travelled on a hired jet.

On the BBC he inaccurately stated that he hires jets because there are only two airlines that fly into Malawi at the moment. The truth is there are four: South African Airways, Ethiopian, Kenya Airways and Malawian Airlines. Was the error inadvertent? Or was it a calculated inaccuracy to make his case for hiring jets?

Reports have also emerged that while in the United Kingdom the President slept in the very expensive Dorchester Hotel where a room costs K3 million per night.

President Mutharika’s penchant for luxury does little to encourage donors to come back. Donors do not want to finance the luxurious lives of leaders of countries they assist. Like we said last week, the royal family and the Prime Minister of Norway travel on commercial aircrafts, and Norway is one of Malawi’s significant donors.

Why should donors like those provide millions of kroners to Mutharika’s government just so he can live in luxury?

The third point – there is a minor correction: the floods took place in January this year, not last year.

Not a very important point, one might say, but it matters when you are sitting across someone like Zeinab Badawi who is rattling statistics of the country you lead off her head.

It looked as though Badawi was the Professor and Mutharika her student.

Judging from comments on social networks, Malawians expected their President to come out more knowledgeable and with a strategy for dealing with the challenges of our time. They were disappointed.

The President instead sounded like a presidential candidate who had forgotten to read his preparatory notes.

He failed to inspire the nation. He failed to give us the hope that he has what it takes to lead this country out of the mess we are now in.

But what can one do about it? Every country elects leaders it deserves, after all.

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