Malawi's president Bingu wa Mutharika's campaigns against poverty and corruption once made him the darling of the international donor community, and two years ago won him reelection with 65% of the vote. Today, the tides have turned. Today, in the eyes of many of his own people, Mutharika has become an autocratic ruler who lost their trust.
Last month, thousands of Malawians marched to stop human rights abuses and corruption, and to protest increasing poverty, in the first anti-government demonstrations since the landlocked southern African country the size of Pennsylvania became a democracy in 1994. The authorities responded with a violent crackdown, in which 19 people were killed and 275 arrested. Since then, civil society leaders have been harassed, the president having warned them on state television, "I'll go after you! Even if you hide in holes I'll smoke you out!" Malawians vowed to take to the streets again on August 17 but postponed the demonstrations after a court injunction was issued against them.
In a 20-point petition, protesters demand that the president trim his bloated cabinet, tackle corruption, address shortages of foreign currency, gasoline, electricity and medicines, and reinstate media freedom and human rights. In 2010, Mutharika made global headlines when he pardoned a gay couple sentenced to14 years in prison on "humanitarian grounds only", but insisted that homosexuality remained illegal in the country.
Mutharika's increasingly authoritarian bent has prompted international donors to slow the flow of aid. Since the beginning of the year, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), European Union, World Bank, Britain, Germany and Norway have frozen $400 million in assistance. That has left a gaping hole in Malawi's national budget, 40% of which is financed by foreign donors. More recently, recently, the U.S. government's Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) decided to hold back $350 million earmarked to address Malawi's energy crisis, stating the money will only be released if government commits to democratic values. "The fate of the MCC compact is in the hands of the government," says Benjamin Canavan, acting deputy chief of the U.S. Embassy in Lilongwe.
When Mutharika first came to power in 2004, the former World Bank economist was praised for overhauling the development policies of a country where 80 percent of the population live in rural areas, by prioritizing agriculture and public spending on the poor. He oversaw six years of rapid economic growth, although that hardly translated into better livelihoods: more than half of Malawi's 14 million people live below the poverty line of $1.25 a day. Instead, money has been seeping away into a corrupt government apparatus. "We have basically reached an economic crisis", says Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace secretary Peter Chinoko.
Ironically, the fight against corruption had been Mutharika's main goal when he became president and charged several government officials, including his predecessor Bakili Muluzi, with corruption and fraud. But in his second term, Mutharika has passed legislation to increase his executive control and has refused to hold local government elections. Most recently, he nominated his younger brother Peter, a retired U.S. law professor and current education minister as the ruling party's candidate for the 2014 general elections without bothering to consult with the party.
"Malawi's constitutional rights are under threat," warns Human Rights Watch (HRW) Africa division senior researcher Tiseke Kasambala, noting that the nomination of Peter Mutharika for president reflected a trend that was turning Malawi into a "pseudo monarchy" without "checks and balances to the president's power."
In early August, Southern African Development Community (SADC) executive secretary Tomaz Salomao met with the Malawi government to discuss the country's political situation. The outcome of the mission will be announced at a SADC summit in Angola later this month, but Salomao told TIME: "We were concerned, but are now confident" that government will start an open dialogue with civil society and launch an independent inquiry into the protesters' deaths.
Pro-democracy activists, however, believe Mutharika's sudden willingness to talk is a delaying tactic to prevent a second nationwide protest against his regime. Due to SADC pressure, a government delegation met with civil society leaders on August 9, but the talks were inconclusive. "Government was unable to propose a roadmap for how to move forward," explains Undule Mwakasungula, one of the protest organizers, and director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation. Mwakasungula vows: "We will march until government commits to genuine dialogue."
Mutharika has also tried to mollify international condemnation by devaluing Malawi's currency, the kwacha, by 10% against the dollar an IMF demand he had long refused in a desperate attempt to resume stalled loan negotiations. But the IMF, which demands thorough public finance management reforms, is not impressed. "This minor devaluation ... does little to address their serious balance of payment problems. The authorities must grapple much more effectively with their problems," says IMF Mission Chief Janet Stotsky. "We have strong concerns about the social well-being of vulnerable households." So, it appears, do many Malawians, and they're no longer convinced that a once-popular president has their best interests at heart.