Political tension continues to shift focus from food crisis

The battle-lines drawn between Malawi's legislature and a president it is trying to impeach, is diverting much-needed attention from the country's food crisis, political analysts warned this week.

In the latest twist to the five-month-old political drama, three United Democratic Front (UDF) parliamentarians - all fierce critics of President Bingu wa Mutharika government - have been arested.

Malawi's former speaker and UDF spokesman, Sam Mpasu, was arrested on Friday and charged with five counts of abuse of office; on Thursday another UDF lawmaker, Maxwell Milanzi, was arrested for allegedly hiding his status as an ex-convict and fraudulently contesting the May 2004 parliamentary elections; and on Wednesday musician-turned-politician Lucius Banda was held and charged with forging a school certificate.

Banda and Milanzi, who were granted bail in the eastern town of Zomba on Friday, were instrumental in moving impeachment proceedings against Mutharika.

Analyst Rafiq Hajat of the Blantyre-based Institute for Policy Interaction said while there might have been grounds for arresting the parliamentarians, "the law seems to be applied selectively and is heightening the existing political tension between parliament and government".

"In an outright confrontation between the two bodies, no one is the winner - there are only losers, and the biggest losers are ordinary Malawians," he observed.

Malawi is in the grip of food shortages brought on by the worst drought in a decade, compounded by the late delivery of fertilisers and seed. According to the UN's World Food Programme, more than 4.6 million Malawians are in need of food aid.

Political confrontation between the government and parliament - where the opposition enjoys majority support - has been building since June, when Mutharika left the UDF after it sponsored him in the 2004 general elections.

Mutharika formed his own political organisation, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP); the UDF then hit back with an impeachment charge, accusing Mutharika of using US $300,000 of public money to launch the DPP.

A constitutional court order last month blocked the impeachment move, on grounds that it needed to review the procedures. Malawi's constitution provides for the impeachment of a sitting president but does not say how this should be accomplished.

The ongoing political confrontation has even attracted the donor community's concern. Donors, including South Africa, wrote to opposition Malawian political leaders last month, voicing their anxiety over the impeachment proceedings when the country was experiencing a "serious and prolonged food crisis".

Political analyst Boniface Dulani pointed out that the government's actions were not helping to ease tensions either. While the government's efforts to root out corruption were laudable, its selective approach could backfire and "strengthen the opposition's resolve to impeach him [Mutharika]".

Civil society groupings have also voiced their concerns over the situation.

"Parliament has spent 56 million Kwacha [more than US $450,000] of taxpayers' money [on the impeachment proceedings]. This money, which has been wasted, could have been used to pay for social services for the poor; it could have been used to buy maize and fertiliser - there is nothing that has come out of it," said Mabvuto Bamusi, executive director of the Malawi Economic Justice Network, an NGO umbrella body.

Dulani suggested that the government attempt reconciliation with the opposition and concentrate on the food crisis.