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Malawi’s announcement that it has cancelled plans to host the African Union (AU) summit in July sent shockwaves across the continent with allegations of defiance levelled against the government of Malawi. On closer scrutiny, it is clear that Malawi’s decision not to host the continental meeting is rooted in at least two major dynamics.
First, it is a decision based on principle informed by the imperative to uphold its international obligations. Second, faced with the dilemma of hosting the AU summit and losing economic aid, Malawi redefined its priorities and allowed its national self-interest to take the upper hand.
Lilongwe clearly argued that it took the momentous decision because the continental body insisted on inviting Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir to attend the summit. Malawi saw this insistence as going against the country’s commitment to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) (see above).
Notwithstanding Malawi’s obligations to the AU, soon after becoming Malawi’s president, following President Bingu wa Mutharika’s death in April, Joyce Banda had publicly warned that Lilongwe would cooperate with the ICC and arrest the Sudanese leader were he to set foot on Malawian soil.
Banda, among her many other identities, is a women’s rights activist, educationist and politician. Her ascendance to Malawi’s presidency was seen by some as being representative of a larger struggle in the country between those supporting a good governance and human rights agenda (largely civil society) and those who were aligned to the increasingly autocratic modus operandi of the late Mutharika.
Banda’s administration initiated early moves to rehabilitate Malawi’s battered reputation for the promotion and protection of human rights. For example, she summarily fired Malawi’s police chief who was criticised for presiding over human rights violations, including mishandling anti-government riots resulting in the death of 19 protesters in July last year, and launched a formal enquiry into the shootings. Malawi’s parliament has also repealed an amendment to section 46 of the country’s Penal Code that allowed the Minister of Information to ban all publications that were deemed not to be in the public interest. Banda’s government is also expected to revoke Malawi’s homophobic legislation.
Against this backdrop inviting al-Bashir, an alleged international war criminal, could have been seen as condoning international human rights abuses running contrary to Lilongwe’s good governance and human rights political trajectory. Malawi’s human rights groups have predictably backed the government’s bold and principled decision to stand with the victims of the Darfur conflict.
Nations also choose to act out of self-interest, not morality alone, and Malawi’s refusal to invite al-Bashir is no different. This was clearly articulated in Malawian Vice-President Khumbo Kachali’s announcement of Lilongwe’s decision not to host the summit. He stated that ‘much as Malawi has obligations to the AU, it has also other obligations’ and its cabinet reached the consensus decision ‘after considering the interests of Malawians’. Malawi, fondly known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’, faced the chilling prospect of being ostracised by the international donor community had it welcomed al-Bashir.
Indeed, Banda said in May that she wanted the Sudanese leader to stay away from the summit to avoid straining ties with the impoverished country’s key Western donors. Foreign aid once provided about 40 per cent of Malawi’s development budget, but funding was slashed amid an economic crisis and governance concerns under Mutharika’s reign, resulting in chronic foreign exchange and fuel shortages. Last October, al-Bashir`s visit to the country to attend a Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa summit attracted much international criticism from external donors who had already frozen aid to Malawi, as the country did not execute the ICC arrest warrant. Banda has embarked on a major drive to smooth over relations with the international community, which were soured under Mutharika, and has taken a number of bold steps to steer the country into donor-friendly waters.
For example, Banda’s government swiftly devalued the Malawi currency. Malawi’s private sector and civil society as well as the international development community, which had been at loggerheads with Mutharika over the matter, all supported the move, which eliminated a thriving parallel foreign exchange market. Last week, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said it had agreed to a new three-year, US$157 million aid package under its Extended Credit Facility. The IMF said the aid was designed to help Malawi achieve the main objective of the second Malawi Growth and Development Strategy of reducing poverty through sustained private sector-led growth and wealth creation.
Britain, Malawi’s largest bilateral aid donor, has also pledged to work directly with the Reserve Bank of Malawi to help it cope with the impact of currency devaluation, in addition to providing funds to help stabilise the Malawian economy. Al-Bashir’s entry into Malawi could have seriously jeopardised Lilongwe’s drive to re-engage with the international donor community. This has risked criticism of Malawi pandering to the whims of the international donor community and not acting independently at the expense of the AU consensus. To take the analysis a step further, it is perhaps a statement on the challenge of balancing diplomatic symbolism and attracting concrete economic returns for countries in dire socio-economic and political crises.
The AU has since decided to shift the summit to its Addis Ababa headquarters; a move in sync with Khartoum’s earlier request in the event of Lilongwe’s digging in its heels over the matter. And at a time of the AU’s call for ‘shared values’ maybe there is a need to sensitise and reach a solid consensus on what those values are for peace, rule of law and democracy.
Written by Gwinyayi Dzinesa, ISS Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division (ISS Pretoria)