Hundreds of Malawians Thursday took to the streets of major cities across the country to protest the worsening economic woes, brought about by the 49% devaluation of the currency, the kwacha, in May and the subsequent floatation against major currencies.
“We have come out in large numbers and we have presented a petition to government and we expect to get a response in the next 21 days,” said John Kapito, Executive Director of the Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA), the main organisers of the protest.
“If government doesn’t take us seriously, we will get tough,” said Kapito who stressed that, among other demands, the protestors were calling for a halt in the floatation of the kwacha.
“We want government to stop the floatation of the kwacha because it is making commodity prices to go up every day and people can’t cope,” he said.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other Western donor agencies and countries, advised the Malawi government to devalue the kwacha and let it float.
But former President Bingu wa Mutharika resisted such calls, saying it would lead to a run on commodity prices which would ultimately hurt the poor.
Western donor nations and agencies were unimpressed and withheld their aid packages.
But when Mutharika, himself a former World Bank economist, died suddenly from cardiac arrest last April, his successor Joyce Banda immediately embraced the devaluation and allowed the kwacha to float freely against major currencies.
Donors rushed in to inject US$ 800 million into the country, but this was not enough to stabilise an economy fast going off a cliff.
President Banda herself says Malawi needs up to US$ 1 billion for the currency to stabilise and begin to pick up.
Kapito said Malawians’ patience was running thin because leaders are not suffering with them.
“Government is calling for austerity measures but the President and her government officials don’t seem to suffer with us,” he said.
Dr. Jesse Kabwila, an academic and activist, said she had to drive the whole 90 kilometres from the university city of Zomba to join the protests in Blantyre because she believes in the cause.
“I wanted to be with the common man because I feel their pain,” she said.
Kabwila, a bitter critic of President Banda, accused the Banda administration of living beyond means.
“They are not living the poverty we are living, they are living large. President Banda has to live like Malawians, if she inherited a crumbling economy why is she living big? Austerity measures must start from the executive branch, President Banda must live like Malawians. There is a lot of executive arrogance,” she said.
Most of the protestors in Blantyre were dressed in black, a symbol of growing poverty, according to the organisers.
They carried placards denouncing government’s wholesale acceptance of IMF policies. Some of the placards read “JB (JOYCE BANDA) YOU’RE THE PRESIDENT, NOT THE IMF!”, “JB LIVE LIKE A MALAWIAN, NOT LIKE THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND!”, “MADAM PRESIDENT, YOUR PEOPLE ARE DYING BECAUSE OF YOUR DEVALUATION!”
Thursday’s demonstration brought back the scenes of the violent 20 July, 2011 anti-Mutharika demonstrations where 20 unarmed protestors were killed by police.
Fearing a repeat, most schools, shops and banks were closed.
But the protests, watched over by hordes of heavily-armed police officers, largely passed over peacefully unlike last year’s were several shops and businesses were looted and torched.
Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu said it was unfair to blame the Banda administration for the current economic woes because it inherited a crumbling economy.
He said President Banda is trying all she could to solve the economic problems.
“Donors who deserted us because of the Mutharika administration’s economic policies are now back in town. The IMF chief (Christine Lagarde) was even here recently which signifies that we are doing the right things,” he said.
Kunkuyu said, while people have the right to demonstrate, some of their demands are impossible to implement.
“We can’t stop the floatation of the kwacha, for example, because that would be economic suicide, all the donors will desert us again,” he said.
This is the first major public display of anger since President Banda came to power last April. And with inflation now hovering at around 33 per cent and interest rates at around 36 per cent, this may not be the last.
With an election coming up in less 15 months, Malawi’s first female president – and Africa’s second – has her work cut out for her. She has a tough balancing act to perform: comply with the dictates of what her predecessor dismissed as the “Washington Consensus” while at the same time making sure she does not have to answer to angry and hungry voters come May 2014.