"It's shameful that the UDF party wants to take us back to the dark days,"

Mr Gwanda Chakuamba (2003)

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Malawi: From the Man Who Promised Free Shoes

Dianna Games

HIS first campaign to become president in the early 1990s, Malawi's
Bakili Muluzi offered his countrymen free shoes in return for votes.

few weeks ago, Muluzi, with 10 years as president of the country behind
him, made another flamboyant gesture in a bid to be re-elected next
year, after an absence of one term. At the congress of his United
Democratic Front (UDF) party, held three weeks ago to choose a
presidential candidate, he promised free fertiliser to all Malawians.

Now that might not sound outrageous at first glance. But the politics of fertiliser is no small matter in Malawi.

government, headed by Bingu wa Mutharika, has already dug deep to
provide heavily subsidised fertiliser to about a million small farmers
over the past two years. The programme cost about $51m last year and
another $78m is budgeted for this year, which the government needs to
fund out of its own revenues due to donor disapproval of the scheme.

the government put the subsidy in place, world fertiliser prices have
risen sharply, increasing by a huge 200% last year. So the fertiliser
subsidy is quickly becoming a prohibitive undertaking for a poor
country such as Malawi.

Muluzi won his party's
presidential nomination and savvy Malawians are hoping that in the
unlikely event that he wins the election, Muluzi will forget he ever
made that promise.

A local businessman who
attended the UDF congress told me that he was unimpressed with the
offer. "In simple terms, Muluzi has promised us the collapse of the
economy," he said.

Of course this negative
view of his "generous" offer is unlikely to deter Muluzi, who, in his
two terms as president between 1994 and 2004, managed to wreck the
country's economy.

What is surprising is that Muluzi still commands political support, given the mess he left Malawi in.

But there is a chance he may be prevented from standing.

he is under investigation by the Anticorruption Bureau for allegedly
diverting $11m of donor money into personal accounts while he was

Second, the constitution, which
only allows the same person to run for two consecutive terms, could be
altered to remove the word "consecutive", an issue being bandied about
in the local newspapers.

No one I spoke to
during a week in the country believed Muluzi would win. But stranger
things have happened in African elections.

who won the presidency with just 36% of the votes in 2004, has
increased his popularity in urban areas through successful economic
reforms over the past few years, and in the rural areas through the
agricultural subsidies.

He is expected to win
a second term based on the economy, but his popularity may be tempered
by the problematic political situation he ushered in by leaving the
UDF, on whose ticket he won the presidency, less than a year into his
first term and forming his own new party.

For the three years since then, the country's legislative process has been held hostage to floor-crossing shenanigans.

president suspended parliamentary proceedings in September last year as
a result of the floor-crossing frenzy. It was reconvened seven months
later, and immediately boycotted by the two main opposition parties.
This political paralysis does not bode well for Mutharika's second-term

My taxi driver in Blantyre was sanguine about
Malawi's politics. "This is Africa", he sighed by way of a reply to my
barrage of questions about the free shoes, the free fertiliser,
Muluzi's support from the very people he had robbed and impoverished,
and so on.

And the shoes? His party supporters
had not forgotten his rash -- and empty -- promise of a decade ago.
They checked back with him at the April congress. He is reported to
have replied, "I didn't know your sizes."

Games is director of Africa @ Work, a research and consulting company

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