Doug Miller returns from Malawi

Amandla regular Doug Miller just returned from Malawi. Gwen Schulman spends the hour talking to him about recent events there.

(Rush transcript)

 

Gwen: I’m sure glad just to remind listeners who are not familiar with Malawi were talking about a very small landlocked country in South-Eastern Africa. we will be talking about it later on tonight because there’s a lot of contention suddenly around what has so far been a very peaceful lake –that’ll come later– but anyway so were talking in a small unusually densely populated country for Africa and a place where Doug Miller has family connections and deep roots and a deep love for the country, so he is just going to bring us up speed… let’s talk first about the general broader political situation because we  actually broke the news in Canada that the president had died extremely suddenly and we had contacts in Malawi that let us know this before most of the rest of the world –or I think even most Malawians– knew that he died and he was replaced by Joyce Banda… Now a few weeks have gone by a we are able to assess the situation.

 

Doug: let’s start with Bingo Muntharika and where that was going and it had gone very badly after a first term of good will and a huge majority re-election he juts squandered it and and… corruption threats of autocracy, press freedoms being threatened and riots in July of 2010 –what was going on here– we just had no idea what was going on and seemed to be going backwards the old days of the dictatorship but then without any announcement –How can you plan these things—he died! In april of 2012 and when I left the country, it was terrible the lack of petrol of diesel the electricity outages were regular and frequent everywhere… so when Joyce Banda took over now there was a special time here he died and he had forced her out of his party. And so she held the post of vice president under the Constitution but she was no longer in his party he was trying to promote his brother to be his successor and he was trying to find ways to push her out. he died however before he could accomplish that task and there was a 30 hour interregnum when a kitchen cabinet of ministers focused around his brother Peter Mutharika who sometimes calls himself Arthur but he’s really Peter, they got together trying to find a way to subvert the Constitution and thank goodness for Malawian fortitude and strength they stood up –some of the most important people the head of the Army the head of the civil service, the opposition parties—and they all said the Constitution applies and we are not willing to accept any of the stuff and so while this cabal had 30 hours to try to subvert the Constitution what they did is they sent his body out of the country to South Africa pretending he was still alive and until the Death certificate was signed, he was president… but this group as I said the head of all these different parts of the civil service police military all came together and opposition and said this is wrong let the Constitution apply and suddenly she became president! This woman who had been so abused and misused and put down and rundown. She was obliged to leave so had her own party the People’s party and she had set up her own party and so as soon as she became president rats came off the sinking ship and into her party it was amazing people from bingu’s party people from MCP the old Malawi Congress party the dictator the United Democratic front the UDF people they suddenly shared majority in Parliament where did it come from… she didn’t exist before … there is she takes over and where bingo alienated all the donors aid money had stopped flowing things are falling apart there was no petrol, no diesel, electricity was short suddenly donor money started flowing petrol and diesel came back in the pumps and the economy started moving again Joyce Banda immediately sold bingo’s private presidential jet It was so contentious, why would a poor country pay for a private jet for a president and they sold it. She launched a maternal health initiative got a new loan from the African development Bank devalued the kwacha… now this was the hard one, the kwacha had gotten out of control and bingo had kept it frozen by fixing the bank rate at something like hundred and 80 kwacha for the dollar –and he’d been under a lot of pressure from the IMF and the World Bank to let the kwacha float, let the natural economics go, as the bourgeois economist call it– so she agreed to let it devalue almost 50% from 180 to the dollar to 280 to the dollar…

 

Gwen: let be clear about what that means in a country like Malawi where there is very little dispensable income…

 

Doug: It’s awful! In her eagerness to please the donors with this flat out devaluation of the kwacha… I was getting 290 on the black market last year but that meant the foreign exchange is going straight into the private pockets it wasn’t going into government controlled pockets and so by taking control like this is allowed a certain regulation of the money that was flowing through the economy and while this corrected this devaluation the impact on workers and peasants was awful was instantaneous and in some cases life-threatening if you’re living on the famous dollar per day but holding only 180 kwacha to buy the food and everything else you need to live than suddenly it cost you 280… you don’t have another hundred kwacha to deal with that’s an artificial construct that lives up there in the cyberspace of the World Bank and the IMF and international capital. The government had done exactly what it was told to do but it IMF and World Bank and had absolutely no plan to protect the population from the consequences and the reaction was swift in the cities the unions that were organized they went off and went on strike. When I arrived in it at the beginning of September over 20 unions were preparing to go on strike including essential services like water and electricity and the settlements –that was interesting as well because it’s us very similar parallel to South Africa where the workers in the mines that are on strike are not with the official unions they are now in different unions very often union management would settle for 20-25% but the workers were saying the devaluation was 45%

 

Gwen: still leaves them behind…

 

Doug: And so there were often conflict between the union base and the members. The cost of living and the increases fell far short of what was needed. Fuel became available that was wonderful because at least petrol and diesel allow transport to occur and the economy to start moving again. When I was there in March there was nothing moving on the roads if you wanted to move you went black market so it wasn’t a 20% increase it was a four or five time increase on the market to get that anywhere you wanted.

 

Gwen: I think I remember Tamara and Susi who just recently got back from doing filmmaking they were saying that they were paying something like equivalent of $14 a liter…

 

Doug: That was awful! under the black market but now with devaluation and inflation it has risen when I got there in the early September it was like 485 kwacha per liter and by the time I left it was up to 533 and the suppliers were complaining because it hadn’t floated up enough in order to cover costs so the economy is in a bit of a tailspin, inflation is hurting people very badly…

 

Gwen: Now Malawi is a small country that we don’t hear very much about. Let’s look at the broad political context. before we get to some of the more local and personal stuff that you went through one of the many things the president is having to contend with is a grueling border dispute with Tanzania over control of the waters of Lake Malawi, a huge deep Lake, the 10th largest in the world, and so why I mean this is been a dormant issue almost forever now there are rumors there is oil lying deep down and suddenly Lake Malawi has taken on a huge importance and I really upped the temperature between these two countries. Tell us a little bit about it.

 

Doug: Personally when I first arrived in Malawi there was a lot of tension between Tanzania and Zambia where all sorts of reasons for that but amongst them was the border dispute.  and Tanzania claimed the borders straight up the middle of the lake as it was for Mozambique but Malawi claimed that according to all sorts of colonial stuff that the border for Tanzania did not run in the middle but on the shore and this has to do with the whole arcane business… and let me do the history here because when the conference of Berlin sat down in 1880 all the colonial powers they looked at the continent of Africa and they drew lines all over the place using straightedge ruler’s without any interest in who lived there and what was going on and at the time Germany got German East Africa, Britain got Nyasaland which is not today’s Malawi and that was about it but there was a dispute going on in Europe between Germany and England –there were some tiny little islands off the coast of Germany owned by England which dated back to when the houses of royalty were sharing things and it was called Helgoland and to settle the dispute in Europe it was called the Anglo German Helgoland agreement of the 1st of July 1890 and what that did is the critical agreement demarcated the boundaries involving a number of territories under British and German control Tanzania Malawi Kenya Ghana Chad Togo Cameroon and Congo for islands that amounted to some few square kilometers all these countries had their borders arranged in Europe without any consultation around and and essentially what happened was Germany at that point gave up its right to the middle of the lake and its border on the lake was according to the shoreline was no more than that.

 

Gwen: thereby giving Malawi Nyasaland at the time the entire lake.

 

Doug: essentially Tanzania couldn’t even put a boat on the lake because its border didn’t cover the water it was only the shore and that’s how Malawi has treated it it’s different for Mozambique that was a different relationship and the line runs down the middle except for a few islands on the Mozambican sides which were conceded by Portugal to Britain and so on but there we are in Tanzania the border goes up the middle of the lake with Mozambique and suddenly it disappears because it’s on the Tanzanian border now you look at any Tanzanian map and the lake is called Lake Nassa and the border runs up the center right through as one would expect it to, well this is all well and good until you discover oil. on the one hand that oil looks like you can bring some wealth and bring some change and make it an important country and all the rest on the other hand wealth is one side of it the Niger Delta tells us there’s another side that’s pollution and dirt and disgusting things happen. now it doesn’t matter where bloody borders is, if you mess up with oil it’s going to be everywhere and so the Tanzanians are rightfully upset of course the Tanzanian elite want to be involved, but local folk I’ve been talking to are very concerned because on the west side of the lake is a mine… its up about 40 km 50 km from the lake with the watershed is in feed straight in the lake so all radioactive garbage that’s coming out of the Kayele kara uranium mines owned by Austrians but registered on the Toronto Stock exchange, is going into Lake Malawi sort of like 3 to 5 km north of Karonga the major town on the Lakeshore and at the same time bingu in his willingness to sell the country to everybody gave up these oil concessions and the Tanzanians as soon at the oil ships appeared on the lake, said don’t you go further until we settle this. so the whole thing is now out there. There were early meetings between the presidents of the two countries and it was interesting because they were attended by all the regular diplomatic types and ministerial types and bureaucrats but more importantly were assisted and facilitated by chiefs from both sides of the border. Now I’m very disdainful of any form of hereditary titles in any form privilege accorded by birth but the chiefs of the area in question represent the pre-colonial history of this area of the government of the region while they are now called niakusa people living in Tanzania and gondies living in Malawi they are essentially the same people speaking the same language with the same culture divided by colonialism and the border was totally artificial it had nothing to do with them and later on once the national struggle had taken power it was doubly reinforced by the narrow interests of political elites that weren’t thinking of the local folk but of their own interests – so they are separated by this artificial colonial border and this sort of betrays the whole goals of the Pan African struggles of liberation movements from the preindependence period. There’d been a bitter saber rattling the Tanzanians were again talking about putting boats and guns on the lake but this is an old history and even in the time of Dr. banda The dictator relations around the border were very tenuous and tense and there was no… you couldn’t even travel from North Malawi into Tanzania across that border because it was at that ridiculous stance so what is happening now is a resurgence of an old dilemma created by colonialism, however its suddenly way more critical.

 

Gwen: but there’s been some talk of bringing it to the international Court of Justice which has been able to resolve some incredibly sticky territorial issues in Africa and elsewhere with the conflict around Lake Chad and…

 

Doug: This is good and Malawi is quite agreeable to that. Tanzania has never signed on to those articles to create the ICJ so it cannot allow us to go forward with that because it hasn’t agreed to the original articles on 30 40 years ago I don’t know why I wasn’t part of that history but so it is just doubly complicated. It was interesting that during those meetings the chiefs from both sides of the lake knew each other and the president of Tanzania knew Malawian chiefs personally because they had been in exile during the dictatorship. They had gone to university together and so it was very clear there not going to be a war, were not have gunships that not going to be bloodshed… this is not Eritrea and Ethiopia but and in fact because of those interventions and those kinds of relationships and finally sitting down and talking about them that had never occurred under the dictatorship and before everybody said we will settle this as traditional chiefs do. We’ll talk and we’ll talk until we arrive at a decision.

 

Gwen: to what degree is the Malawian media preoccupied with this issue? Is it a big issue for most Malawians?

 

Doug: the media in Malawi is so shallow I don’t even know if I can answer that question. Joyce Banda came back from New York and said oh the Tanzanians are still claiming the lake and so I’m cutting off this discussion so right now it’s in a low point but it was a high point when I got there in September the fact that they had a high point after 40 years of colonial history means it will take low point will work from there because I’m pretty sure we will get something. but what is really more critical is this oil business in a lake like that, that lake is a deep water lake, it’s not a fjord of the Norwegian sense but fjords are very sensitive environment there so deep and they have so little water coming into them that they cannot cleanse themselves like our Great Lakes do and our Great Lakes we’ve been polluting so long yet they are marvellously clean for all the stuff that we put in them. Anyway the thing about those deep Lakes is that it’s hard to cleanse them and if we start doing oil exploration in them it is going to have an impact way beyond the norm and critics are concerned any oil explorations and as I said the Niger Delta is a lesson to be learned for all of Africa pollution does not care where those man-made lines run we’ve got to do something about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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