BLANTYRE – As Malawi marked 50 years of freedom from colonial rule on Sunday, President Peter Mutharika said the country’s biggest enemy today was poverty.
Thousands gathered to celebrate independence from Britain in the capital Lilongwe, but many Malawians said chronic underdevelopment and heavy reliance on foreign aid had locked them into a new form of economic bondage.
The jubilee, attended by African leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, comes after a bitterly fought election and a high-level corruption scandal that saw donors freeze $150-million in vital aid.
“The past 50 years have been a long winding road, teaching us great lessons and at the same time making strides and achievements,” Mutharika told the celebration, which also marks the 20-year anniversary of multi-party democracy in Malawi.
He urged his citizens — half of whom live below the poverty line — to have “one common purpose of building our nation and lifting ourselves from poverty which is by far our nation’s greatest enemy today”.
The landlocked southern African nation of 15 million people, whose economy is largely based on agriculture, relied on international aid for 40 percent of its budget before the donor freeze.
An audit ordered by former president Joyce Banda found that $30-million in state funds had been looted by officials in less than six months last year.
Mutharika said he was counting on the support of Malawians “in taking our country on a development path” as he introduced new policies to revive its ailing economy.
The celebrations include traditional dances, a military parade and a friendly football match between the hosts and neighbouring Mozambique.
– ‘Enslaved’ by donor aid –
Standing on a street corner selling bananas and local staple cassava in the chilly early hours of Sunday morning, 24-year-old Agnes Kasi said independence had not brought prosperity for most Malawians.
“Why should we celebrate 50 years of independence if the majority of us are still poor and barely survive?” she said.
“It’s meaningless to celebrate when all we need are jobs and economic empowerment. This country needs leaders who can develop it to end this poverty,” she told AFP.
Successive leaders, including independence hero Kamuzu Banda who ruled for three decades before losing the first democratic poll in 1994, have failed to grow the agriculture-based economy.
Geoffrey Matonga, a cleric with the Pentecostal church Faith of God, argues that Malawians are not “free as long as we still depend on donors for 40 percent of our budget”.
“We are not free people, this donor aid enslaves us. Malawi needs capable leaders to end this poverty,” he said.
Henry Kachaje, managing director of Business Consultant Africa, said that “Malawi is at a critical juncture after closing a chapter of 50 years of self-rule” and “must make a choice whether to take a different path or remain on the same path”.
Mutharika — whose brother and former president Bingu wa Mutharika died in office in 2012 — has pledged to reach beyond traditional Western donors to find “new friends” in China and Russia.
Presidential spokesman Frederick Ndala told AFP the celebrations herald the “beginning of a new generation which calls for people to sit down, reflect and project into the future”.
“We must reflect as nation where we are coming from, what we have achieved and how do you move from here,” he said.