Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika, currently under fire from both local and international rights group, as well as western capitals over concerns on deteriorating human rights situation in Malawi, Thursday said his administration would uphold, promote and guarantee freedom and human rights, including freedom of expression and academic freedom.
Mutharika made the pledge when he witnessed the signing of a US$ 350.7 million (53 million Malawi Kwacha) Millennium Challenge Compact with the US government in the capital, Lilongwe, aimed at boosting the southern African country’s energy sector.
“My government wants to assure the USA that we will adhere to principles of good governance, freedom of expression, association, religion as well as economic and academic pursuits,” he said.
Mutharika, who returned from a state visit to Gaborone, Botswana, where opposition leaders boycotted his engagements because of what they called Malawi’s quick slide into dictatorship, said Malawi’s qualification for the five-year grant, which is tied to just and democratic governance, investments in people and economic freedom, indicated that the country was making a headway in democracy consolidation.
The Mutharika administration has come under pressure from donors, media, religious bodies and civil society groups for poor governance emanating from new laws that seek to gag the media, restrictions on freedom of assembly and the criminalisation of homosexuality, among others.
However, Mutharika defended his record, saying the absence of political prisoners and the recent pardoning of a convicted gay couple despite Malawi’s laws criminalising same-sex liaisons indicated that there is tolerance and freedom in the country.
“A team of our nationals went out recently to damage us and they are back,” he said, referring to a delegation of the Human Rights Consultative Committee that recently delivered a letter to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, on behalf of the Malawian civil society on the deteriorating human rights situation in Malawi.
According to the President, “I can assure you that they were not arrested and they will not be, unless they violate other laws.”
Mutharika appealed to donors to point out at specific shortfalls, instead of generalising issues, saying the gesture by USA would spur investments in the energy sector.
Charge d’Affaires at the US mission in Malawi, Lisa Vickers said Malawians had shown their love for democracy, which they sacrificed, with some dying for it.
“Your Excellency can take great pride in the work and perseverance of your fellow citizens in consolidating gains in political liberty and economic freedom,” Vickers said, adding “these gains are paving way for a successful future for all.”
Vice President of the Millennium Challenge Corporation Patrick Fine, who signed the compact with Finance Minister Ken Kandodo, said the five-year compact will continue to assess the agreed principles continuously.
“It has taken three years. If we follow the agreed plan, I have no doubt that Malawi will make great strides at removing one of the main barriers to economic growth by expanding access to energy for millions,” said Fine, who delighted the audience when he revealed that he proposed to his wife on top of Zomba Mountain 28 years ago.
Energy Minister Grain Malunga said the compact will focus on upgrading, expanding and rehabilitation of transmission networks, refurbishment of the country’s hydro-electric plants and strengthening the Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi(ESCOM) operational capacity.
Other areas of focus included strengthening of the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority and environment management, he said.
Later at a press conference, Fine admitted that the signing of the compact was delayed due to Malawi ‘s penal code amendments on section 46 and criminalisation of lesbianism.
“We had strong commitments and assurances from the Malawi Government to uphold human rights and freedom of expression,” he said, adding “this morning, the President stressed on that commitment and that is why we proceeded.”
The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) is an innovative and independent U.S. foreign aid agency that is helping lead the fight against global poverty.
The Malawi pact is billed to invigorate the country’s power sector, spur private investment and promote long term sustainable economic growth.
With the MCA money, there is expected to be reforms in the power sector in Malawi.
Massive investment in the energy infrastructure improvements and creating business opportunities for Malawians and US businesses are also envisioned