Malawi is fast becoming another Southern African Development Community (Sadc) problem child, with its economy plummeting into a crisis.
Fuel queues are now a common phenomenon and foreign exchange shortages have forced the government to devalue the Malawian kwacha.
Malawi and Zimbabwe share historical links, dating back to the time of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland which saw migrant workers moving from Malawi to Zimbabwe in the 1950s.
Zimbabwe has citizens of Malawian descent who fled back to Malawi during the country’s economic crisis, together with many indigenous people seeking greener pastures.
In Lilongwe it is common to hear people conversing in Shona or blending it with Chewa.
“Malawi is different from other Sadc countries because people here are warm and friendly.
It is like we are just in a different city in Zimbabwe. They (Malawians) respect us and we live freely as there are no fears of any xenophobic attacks here,” said Almenda Banda, a Zimbabwean citizen in Malawi.
Zimbabweans in Malawi are not fazed with the current economic crisis facing Malawi and to most of them it is hay time to make a lot of money.
“I am not thinking of packing my bags and going back to Zimbabwe. We have been in these economic trenches and it is high time we made a lot of money.
Most Malawians are perplexed about the current situation, but for most Zimbabweans, we learnt one or two things from the Zimbabwean crisis and we know of people who made a lot of fortunes during these turbulent times. Nothing will stop us from making it here,” said Agrippa Moyana who has a clothing business.
A survey conducted by NewsDay revealed that Zimbabwean entrepreneurs were almost in every facet of the Malawian economy.
“We have ministers which are of Zimbabwean descentand most influential positions in non-governmental organisations are held by Zimbabweans here. Zimbabweans are known the world over for their education and working culture, so it is not difficult to make it here in Malawi,” said Moyana.
But it is the informal sector, populated by Zimbabweans making a lot of money and scores of them could be seen selling chips and chicken along roadsides.
“This type of meal (chicken and chips) is very popular here, so from what we have learnt back home, after closing today’s business I will go around buying US dollars and because the kwacha is losing value overnight, by tomorrow I would have a lot of cash,” said Enock Haruneri, a vendor.
This reporter visited Malawi’s biggest flea market called Kumarangaranga which could be Malawi’s equivalent of Mupedzanhamo in Harare.
Most of the stallholders are Zimbabwean and one could hear them conversing in Shona during transactions.
“We are making a fortune here. Some of our Malawian counterparts do not want to trade in foreign currency. They are afraid of being duped, so customers with foreign currency trade with us.
We are making a killing here,” said Rhoda Mutero.
Some of the Zimbabweans have already started selling fuel in containers at exorbitant prices.
“It is a new phenomenon for Malawians to queue for fuel and we have already negotiated with haulage truck drivers who would be in transit to Tanzania or DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) to drain fuel so that we can sell it on the black market,” said one Zimbabwean fuel dealer.
Foreign currency is still exchanged in banks, but Zimbabweans living here have hinted if the country’s laws on foreign currency are loosened they will soon become foreign currency dealers.
Impoverished Malawi is presently locked in a diplomatic row with its former colonial master and biggest donor Britain over a leaked embassy cable which referred to President Bingu Wa Mutharika as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.
That leaked cable led to the expulsion of Britain’s Ambassador to Malawi, Fergus Cochran. Like the case of Zimbabwe, soon after the expulsion of its Ambassador to Lilongwe, Britain reacted swiftly by kicking out Malawi’s representative in London and suspending aid worth $550 million.
This freeze has dealt a body blow to the budget of a country which has for long relied on handouts and intensified a dollar supply crunch threatening the kwacha’s official peg at 175 to the US dollar.
Prompted by fuel shortages and soaring costs of imported goods, Malawians took to the streets in July to protest against Wa Mutharika’s rule. His government responded with brute force leaving 20 people dead in the ensuing crackdown.
These scenes mirrored Zimbabwe in 1998 when riot police, armed with batons, shields and automatic rifles, fired teargas at demonstrators, who had used bricks and logs to block streets and intimidated others to stay away from work in demonstrations against the rising cost of food stuffs.
Reuben Chilera — director at Excutivewrite, a political think-tank — said: “We are almost a Zimbabwe, both in the economy and in political governance. There are similarities in terms of their President (Mugabe) and Wa Mutharika.
“They’re both using a heavy hand in their governance, in terms of how they want to rule and also disregarding other branches of government — the Judiciary, the Legislature.
“Like Zimbabweans, Malawians right now are frustrated. Malawians are disgruntled at how the country is being governed and how the economy is moving.
“They want to have more voice. Malawians are distressed by what they see as the hypocrisy of their government which came to power denouncing the corruption of the previous regime, but rapidly became embroiled in scandals of its own.”
Wa Mutharika, who came to power in 2004, has been subject of intense criticism for expelling rivals from the ruling party, expanding presidential powers and signing laws that have restricted protests, media freedom and lawsuits against the government.