Mutharika promises action over economy, corruption

Malawian analysts have reacted with caution to President Bingu wa Mutharika's promise to tackle corrpution and the economy, made in his address at the inaugural session of the national assembly on Tuesday.

"We will deal with corruption and its perpetrators decisively, because corruption has a negative impact on our economy. The measures will include swift investigations, prosecution and severe punishment of all those involved in corruption," said Mutharika, a former World Bank economist.

"The priority of my government is to resume the economic programme with the IMF [International Monetary Fund], so that we can access resources necessary to fix the growth process," Mutharika told the assembly. Malawi's domestic debt is about US $600 million dollars, while it owes foreign institutions about $2.9 billion.

The IMF, the European Union, the World Bank, and the governments of Britain and Denmark all suspended budgetary support to Malawi following concerns about over-expenditure and corruption by former president Bakili Muluzi's government.

"I am cautious about his speech. What he is saying is cosmetic, as he has already started backtracking on some of the promises he made. People are not interested in rhetoric - he must walk the talk," said political analyst Nixon Khembo, referring to newspaper reports last month that Mutharika had pardoned Shabir Suleman, a businessman serving a five-year jail sentence term for attempting to bribe a High Court judge.

This week police officials said it was Muluzi who had pardoned Suleman, 11 days before he left office in May this year.

"We need political will to deal with corruption. Unless Mutharika delinks himself from the UDF [United Democratic Front] national chair [Muluzi] and the party, his promises will not be fulfilled," Khembo said.

Mutharika promised to make Malawi "hunger-free", saying, "A nation that cannot feed itself cannot claim to be a sovereign and independent country."

Strategic agriculture programmes, including plans to introduce contract farming to produce 250,000 metric tons of maize, the nation's staple food, along with winter cropping of about 100,000 metric tons, were announced by Mutharika. In contract farming the harvests of independent farmers are purchased in advance.

He also said his government would introduce fertiliser subsidies, continue with a targeted inputs programme that benefits about 2.5 million people, and expand lending institutions in the agriculture sector.

Mutharika pointed out that the economy had been adversely affected by high domestic debt and the decision of donor countries and agencies to withhold over US $75 million in aid.

Political analyst Rafiq Hajat said, "If the president is promising to reduce domestic borrowing and public expenditure, to me this is a good indication for the economy. However ... the 10-point plan by former finance minister Matthews Chikaonda ... was good, but the ministries failed to implement them."

Hajat called on Malawians to give the new government time to see whether it would deliver on its promises. "The president is an economist. He knows how to deal with the IMF".

Mutharika also promised to reform the education system by encouraging vocational training, which would provide long-term benefits to the economy. He said, Malawi was to continue with free primary education. Malawian schools' curriculum would also shift emphasis from training children for white collar jobs to acquiring entrepreneurial skills, Mutharika said.