In an exclusive interview with Independent Media in Blantyre this week, Malawi President Arthur Mutharika revealed how he is turning around a bankrupt state. Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

BLANTYRE - This year, according to the Electoral Institute of Democracy in Africa, about 23 countries in the continent are gearing up for elections.

Some old governments are slowly losing their grip on political power; others are forming coalition governments while some are experiencing internal revolts where the people are demanding change.

Never has democracy been so alive and vibrant in Africa like the present. However, one country, Malawi, which is slowly trying to turn things around on its road to economic recovery, finds itself at a precipice.

The country’s president, Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, widely considered a Pan-Africanist, has a captivating political journey that has its origins in the fight against colonisation and being one of the first countries to defeat the British in the late 50's, thereby gaining independence.

Mutharika fled Malawi at the beginning of Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorship in the early 1960s to the United States in search of political refuge. He was arrested by colonial authorities at the age of 19, fighting for freedom until the defeat of British colonialism, with Malawi gaining her Independence.               

Following that, the country entered a pitch black tunnel of death and darkness as it became a dictatorship within a year.

After ideological differences with Banda, the Malawi Congress Party (MPC)-led government hunted Mutharika and agents captured and murdered his father by beating him to death when he would not reveal where Mutharika and his brother had fled to. 

Fast-forward to 2018, he is a sitting head of state, leading the Democratic Progressive Party in the country.

Malawi, often described as a donor dependent nation, poor and plagued by corruption, finds itself at a crossroads where it has to choose between going backwards to an era where the entire economy was bankrupted by previous regimes to benefit a few politicians, or to stick to an economic recovery plan that is not only pulling people out of poverty, but is receiving world wide praise from institutions such as the IMF, restoring confidence in the country’s national fiscus and economic growth and governance.

In an exclusive interview with Independent Media this week in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital, Mutharika revealed how he inherited a bankrupt state as a result of the infamous Cash-Gate scandal where graft, corruption and cronyism were the order of the day.

Detailing the road to economic recovery, Mutharika painted a chilling picture of how widespread corruption had put Malawi on the brink of collapse, on its way to being another typical failed state as a result of greed as well as power mongering by politicians and government ministers who used their positions as proxies in order to enrich themselves.

Re-establishing the moral-fibre of Malawian governance structures has been central to Mutharika’s four year presidency as he was faced with the laborious task of shifting negative perceptions amongst the population and ensuring that government regains the confidence and trust of the people.

Reclaiming a government that was entrenched in moral deficiency, Mutharika explains that the tentacles of corruption had tainted various organs of the state, the media, civil society and even the judiciary.

Before he came into power, civil society organisations were unable to account for 90% of donor aid that they had received in order to alleviate poverty which resulted in the politicisation corruption in the country.

“We managed to clean house, and rebuild using our own resources,” he says.

Picture: Phando Jikelo/African News Agency (ANA)

Before his presidency, Mutharika reveals that resources were often diverted from state coffers for personal gain and the defining factor of his presidency was selecting an executive team that has been able to work collectively to stamp out corruption.

“I inherited a bankrupt state, and over the last four years we have worked hard and tirelessly to turn things around. We have put stringent measures in place, ensuring that the law works and we hold those who were responsible accountable. In government we have established integrity units and reformed the laws and Public Finance Management Act to make it extremely difficult to steal money from the government. This includes establishing law enforcement agencies and an anti-corruption unit which works independently along with the financial intelligence unit and director of public prosecutions. We are seeing results as people are being convicted. Last week, ten people from the Cash-Gate corruption scandal were convicted and more heads are expected to roll,” he explains.

Road to economic recovery

Kwame Nkrumah, who became president of Ghana when the country first gained its Independence in 1957 once famously said: “Seek ye first, the political kingdom and the rest shall follow”.

Mutharika remembers how this statement set the tone of post independent African states.

“We thought that by becoming independent, everything will be fine. We were not prepared for the economic challenges and we found ourselves faced with a situation where we needed to run the economy. The ideology of Nationalisation in the 60s took precedence. We took over many private companies and industries which ended up being run by the states. The problem with that is there were no skills and people had no degrees in economics. We supported nationalisation and saw foreign capital as an enemy. That viewpoint has now changed because we realised that no country can survive without foreign capital,” he says.

The lack of foreign capital had a detrimental effect on Malawi and many other African states as it was virtually impossible to grow an economy without foreign direct investment. For Africa, this created a dependency model in the international economic system. 

According to Mutharika, the lessons learned from Malawi’s colonial legacy is that capital, whether foreign or domestic is not an enemy but a friend. This includes investing in agriculture, education and health.

He interjects: “We got it wrong, but we are now getting it right. No country can develop without capital and skills.”

Mutharika’s four year presidency has seen inflation drop from 24% to a single digit of 9%. Interest rates have been dropped from 34% to 16%, with relative stability for more than two years, allowing the country to grow exponentially with massive infrastructure projects relating to health, education, agriculture and power supply in the pipeline.

Mutharika is of the view that tremendous progress has been made where many poor people are starting to gain access to dignified housing. Over the last four years, his administration has built over 20 000 houses for the poor.

“We have changed our mindset psychologically. When I took over in June 2014, a third of the country was washed away; many houses were built out of mud with grass thatches. Donor funders were providing 40% of the financial resources to ensure that people had a roof over their heads. There was hunger and 8 million people were food insecure. We had to turn things around and find a solution. To some extent we are still donor dependent but we have managed to run the country without donor support for four years. 

"However, for our development budget, we need some support to build infrastructure and ensure industrialization so that we can begin to grow. We need five more years and coming from the Cash-Gate scandal, it may take a bit longer. We need support in the areas of development and building infrastructure and other aspects of the economy. In five years or so I believe that Malawi can be self sustainable and we will not need donor support in the following five or six years after that,” he says.