No time for tea in Malawi

I’ve always presumed that the business of presenting ambassadorial credentials to a host government is an occasion of pleasantries over cups of tea, regardless of the normal state of relations between the parties concerned.

Not when it comes to the US representation in Malawi it seems.

“It is up to Malawi to reaffirm its commitment to political pluralism, human rights and the rule of law through concrete, positive actions,” demanded the new US Ambassador, Jeanine Jackson, on her courtesy call to President Bingu wa Mutharika at the New State House last week.

The context of this somewhat hasty staking out of diplomatic territory is the rising tension over suspension of a $350 million grant by the US aid agency, the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Bound by its mission to promote good governance, the MCC took exception to the president’s heavy-handed treatment of anti-government protests in July.

The grant is a potential game-changer for Malawi because it would develop the country’s dilapidated power supplies. One estimate suggested that half of the population would benefit.

Earlier this month, Mutharika despatched his Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooporation to patch things up with US government and MCC officials. The Minister, who happens to be the president’s brother, reported back that “the trip was a great success” and that positive announcements are expected.

While this was going on, Mutharika committed another faux pas in hosting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir at a COMESA meeting of heads of state. Bashir is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court.

A Republican Congressman, Frank Wolf, has duly demanded that Malawi’s claims for the MCC grant be ditched for good.

Yet another complication comes in the shape of the MCC’s own October announcement of new guidelines for countries eligible for grants. Its democratic “tests” for political rights and civil liberties have been toughened up even more.

No wonder that Ms Jackson had no time for diplomatic niceties. It’s clear that the US side is in no mood to compromise.

Mutharika has two choices. Either he eats big helpings of humble pie, perhaps assisted by the impending outcome of the commission of enquiry into the public unrest, or he must produce a Chinese rabbit out of the hat, replacing the suspended US funding.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK