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Malawians pray for rebirth of moribund economy


LILONGWE – The faithful came to Easter Sunday mass in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe with Bibles in one hand and newspapers in the other, to read about their new president Joyce Banda and pray for the rebirth of a dying economy.

A policeman’s daughter and women’s rights activist, Banda was sworn in as the small southern African country’s new president on Saturday to succeed Bingu wa Mutharika, who died on Thursday and was widely blamed for the economic collapse.

In the former British colony, one of the world’s poorest states where about 80 percent of the population is Christian, the Church had been a focal point in opposition to former World Bank economist Mutharika, who had ignored calls at home and abroad to change flawed economic policies.

His antagonistic relations with western donors such as Britain and the United States which bankrolled about 40 percent of the budget led to the freezing of millions of dollars of aid, punching an enormous hole in the impoverished nation’s finances.

“We pray that the donors will absolve us of our sins,” said one churchgoer named Julius at the Maula Parish Church, asking his last name not be used for fear of reprisal from a police force that Mutharika had often employed to stamp out dissent.

Mutharika’s disastrous economic tutelage had led to crippling foreign exchange and fuel shortages. Churches were packed in the capital Lilongwe on Sunday partly because many could not afford a ride back to their villages at Easter in the few mini-buses that had petrol.

In rural areas where Internet connection is sparse, computers rare and electricity flows intermittent, the Church provides a meeting place where communities gather and discuss local events.

With Mutharika gone, Malawians are hoping they can rebuild bridges to the outside world and restore aid funding that helped pay for fertiliser subsidies and seed programmes that had once turned a country of subsistence farmers into food exporters.

“Banda taking office is a big sign that we are on a new and better path. We have been praying that God will help her and will help our country,” said Sister Margaret Madziataika, one of the Sunday celebrants.

Easter, and Banda’s inauguration as the first female head of state in southern Africa, marked the culmination of several days of turmoil and uncertainty in the normally sleepy country.

A two-day delay in the official announcement of Mutharika’s death after a heart attack on Thursday had stoked fears that the late president’s brother, Foreign Minister Peter Mutharika, whom he had been grooming as a possible successor, might be foisted on the country in defiance of the constitution.

The charter stipulates that the vice-president takes over in the event of the president’s demise, and there was widespread relief when Banda, who was expelled from Mutharika’s ruling DPP party in 2010 after an argument about the succession, was sworn in with the backing of the judiciary and army and police chiefs.

Hopes are high that Banda, a successful businesswoman who developed grassroots anti-poverty programmes, can repair the damage inflicted by Mutharika’s mercurial rule in a country touted by tourist brochures as “the Warm Heart of Africa.”

There were signs too that the international community would be happy to lend a helping hand to the new president.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, while expressing condolences for the death of Mutharika, welcomed the “peaceful transition in Malawi.”

“He looks forward to working with the government under acting President Joyce Banda,” Ban’s spokesman said.

Expectations had been high too when Mutharika took office in 2004.

Due to donor-funded farm programmes and ample rains during much of his rule, the country’s maize harvest had boomed. Malawi’s real GDP growth was among the highest in the world, averaging 7 percent from 2005 to 2010.

But the confidence generated by this progress was dashed after Mutharika – called professorial and arrogant by his critics – launched an unprecedented crackdown on dissent. This culminated with 20 anti-government protesters killed by police in July 2011 and fights with foreign donors that pushed the economy to the brink.

One of Malawi’s major independent newspapers, The Nation, said optimism over the new Banda government should also be tempered by the history of once promising leaders later tarnished by arrogance and corruption.

“After the false dawns of the last regimes, Malawians will be forgiven for reserving their judgement until much later,” it said in a cautious editorial on Sunday.

But this Easter Sunday, at the Maula Parish church on a dusty street near a crowd of people waiting to buy scarce sugar, Malawians expressed faith that life was going to get better.

“God is blessing us with this new government on this special day,” said resident Patrick Johnson.-Reuters

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