Sunday, 16 September 2012

Mountain too High (Part 3)

I had an opportunity to talk to someone from the donor community who gave a perspective that sobered me up. This was completely the opposite from the vibes we got in the first months of JB’s reign. He summarized it as follows when I asked him reasons for donor withdrawal or delays in disbursements; “For over 5 years, as donors we tried to make Bingu make changes to a number of areas where we had concerns. We hit a blank wall and with each day he grew even more stubborn. Within weeks of JB coming into power, she said yes to everything we suggested. We should have been smart enough to know that she did not mean it. Most of us are now waiting for 2014”. What is this uncaring conduct? Given the state of the economy, perhaps people would like to see a leader that spends more time sitting in her office, thinking, analyzing issues, receiving briefings and studying reports, strategizing on the direction of the economy. She needs time to understand what is happening in country and get a feel of the direction of her partners. People on the ground argue that JB has spent the last 5 months jumping from one meeting to the next and attending functions that are of no consequence. They give an example of a meeting that took place the day I arrived in Malawi when she had Sunday prayers with Lilongwe women and later a “drinking party” with women civil servants. They reasoned that as the next day she was welcoming the Nigerian President, surely she could have spent the Sunday with her team to strategise on the Nigerian President’s visit. Some people argue that JB has fallen in love with peripheral activities which are of no consequence to the challenges Malawi is facing. I am sure it was not my arrival but fuel shortages were back in Malawi. Queues were back at least in Lilongwe. Discussions in pubs indicate growing discontent and lack of confidence in JB. They say, "JB has no agenda. She works up in the morning and waits for calls of which Chief to elevate, which public function to attend. Then they gave me a typical JB diary of meeting Chiefs, mediating or negotiating over wage demands etc. Someone summarized JB as follows: “She seems clueless as to what is happening around and what it means to be a President. She is trying but failing to strike a right balance between being and not being Kamuzu; Bakili; and Bingu. She has a bit of all but failing to make the most of the best”. My take is that JB can reverse this situation very easily because she has no credible challenger among the opposition. But she quickly needs to put her house in order. She needs to get a completely new economic and governance team that concentrates on managing the economy and not enjoying the honeymoon of the perks. She blundered by appointing a Vice President who is non-technical. She should have borrowed a leaf from Italy when Mr. “Bunga Bunga Berlusconi was replaced by Mario Monti as Prime Minister. The challenge was the economy and not the politics. JB’s team is all about politics. Time is however running out for JB. Her many admirers and sympathisers are now in doubt of her abilities and have lost confidence in her and the PP Government. They say, “The Mountain is Too High for JB”. But is it?

Mountain too High (Part 2)

My short spell in Malawi was very revealing. Let me start with more of the same. Kenya Airways and South Africa airways landed almost at the same time at Kamuzu International Airport. Congestion followed in the arrival hall. I have to admire those immigration officers who have to manually fill in arrival details of passengers on plain sheets of paper with lines drawn using a ruler. I asked this fellow what they do with the papers. He smiled and said "we take them back and transfer this information on yet other papers and then we destroy the originals". Many countries have gone electronic but the poor Malawi Immigration have to manually collect data whilst computers are in many public "bosses" offices covered with " zidoyilo". Minister of Home Affairs, please, let's see change. It is very easy to computerise your systems. We are in modern times. I arrived a day before Jonathan Good-luck arrived in Lilongwe. PP zealots in their “orange colours” were up early on Monday morning to welcome the Nigerian leader. Old habits die hard. Orange flags were flying alongside the Malawian and Nigerians flags along the route. Motorists were in shock on Monday morning as roads were closed and many people were only able to arrive in their office after 09am. I wondered why roads were even closed. Leading a nation of 15 million people should fairly be an easy task especially if the majority of these people live in the rural area and their key needs are mainly basic necessities. After all, Malawians are known as "docile" people, less militant and our anger quickly wears out. This does not seem to be the case for President Joyce Banda (JB). Barely 5 months after occupying Plot No. 1, the economy, is struggling with voices of disgruntlement growing by the day. The noticeable challenges include; increase in prices of basic commodities, fuel price increase, re-emergence of fuel queues, runaway inflation; dissatisfied low and middle-class; poor tobacco season, 1.2 million people facing hunger; etc. Many observers argue that JB and her People’s Party have no vision for Malawi and that what we are seeing is a “Subsistence Government”. In all fairness, JB inherited an economy that was on its knees (if not on its back) and the country was almost bankrupt. The last half of 2011 and prior to Bingu’s demise we saw an increase in Central Government accessing funds from the banking system to finance domestic activities owing to reduced donor flows and heavy Bingu commitments. She inherited a country with foreign exchange crisis, electricity and water crisis, fuel crisis, human capacity problem with low labour productivity. There is no dispute that Malawi had to devalue the Kwacha and had to quickly transit from a fixed exchange regime which was a complete misfit to the realities of the economy. The argument is not about the devaluation but rather about technical matters, timing and sequencing. There was also no illusion that the devaluation of kwacha was going to have a major impact on incomes and livelihood of the majority of the people. Although those voicing concern are mainly blaming JB’s inability to protect consumers from effects of devaluation, the reality is that JB could not do much to cushion this pain, nor could she intervene to make fuel prices remain stable. Perhaps it is the uncaring conduct and statements being made by JB and her lieutenants that is fueling anger and sentiments from people like John Kapito

Mountain too High (Part 1)

I was in Swaziland and had just missed the reed dance. Muluzi beat me to it. As i landed at Manzini airport, the bare breasted maidens were leaving for their various homes after entertaining the men of Africa and guests. I could just imagine Bakili's smile on seeing a mixture of makanda and D7s. Although reed dance is a celebration of virginity, in Swaziland virginity is defined as "Women who have not given birth before". So the bare breasted maidens you see are mostly "virgins in a Swazi way" Air Malawi From Swaziland, I missed my SA flight to Malawi (probably preoccupied with annoyance after missing the reed dance) and I had to turn to Air Malawi. The Johannesburg staff were very helpful and managed to get me a seat. "We fly on Saturdays to Blantyre but this week we will fly on Sunday", they told me to my amusement. "Ndi mini bus"? I mused. Then the shocker came. I wanted a one way ticket and it was going to cost me US$840! I was told all cheap seats were taken!
Forget it. I turned back to SA. I finally managed to get a business class ticket on SA which I got cheaper than flying our mother QM. Well cheaper, because I also used my miles on SA. On my flight to Malawi, I sat with the cream of Malawi. That is when the stories started about what is happening at home. I heard that the management of the new Chinese hotel and conference centre, which had been given to Sunbird, will be given back to a South African company that initially won the bid. The PP Government had rescinded the decision of DPP Government to award management contract to the South African company. I was actually surprised that PP Government had given this mammoth task to Sunbird who cannot even manage the small hotels that they are currently managing. I still give PP credit for realising their mistake. Of course the SA Company will now have a stronger bargaining position. The infrastructure looks beautiful. Time will tell how we utilise "Bingu colour dream" which of course is part of the reason our economy is bleeding and our debt has grown considerably in the last 5 years. I was keen to understand more on our approach to tourism. Well Press Corporation had "colour dreams" of turning Cape Maclear into tourism Mecca. What surprised me is that Malawi’s tourism strategy seems to be based on 5 star infrastructures (hotels) and yet we don't have 5 star entertainment, services, customer service, human resources etc. Take for example Mangochi. As a tourist, what can keep me for than 1 day in Mangochi? Day 1, I swim and go to watch birds and watch nyau dancers. After that I might as well leave. Our strategy also does not include domestic family tourism. In my view the Cape Maclear Press Corporation project will fail unless the whole model is changed. Press Corporation could be the anchor investor but the concept and model should include many small Malawi investors and thus each takes a small risk and benefit from a fuller concept. This works like the "Shopping Mall" concept. I was however glad to hear about the initiative at Majete Game reserve. For the first time, we have the Big 5 at Majete. I hear over 100 elephants were moved from Mangochi to Majete and that facilities have been upgraded. I will be keen to hear from those that have visited.