Planned Malawi protests raise British concern


British Foreign Secretary William Hague has asked Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika to show restraint ahead of mass protests planned for next week, after his administration last month violently crushed anti-government rallies.

Opposition groups have given the president a Wednesday deadline to listen to their demands, promising a fresh wave of protests if he does not address the chronic poverty that has ensnared most of the southern African country’s 13 million people.
“I remain concerned about the situation in Malawi,” Hague said in a statement. “I call on all parties to exercise restraint over the coming days.”

Protesters last month staged unprecedented rallies against the president that left 19 dead and led to international rebuke, Reuters reports.

Civil rights groups want Mutharika to explain his personal wealth, address foreign exchange and fuel shortages that have battered the economy and to seek reconciliation with Britain, which froze aid after a diplomatic spat.

Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, has presided over six years of high-paced but aid-funded growth. He has threatened to “smoke out” those opposed to his rule.

He was embroiled a few months ago in a row with Britain, Malawi’s biggest donor, over a leaked embassy cable that referred to him as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.

The cable led to the expulsion of Britain’s ambassador to Lilongwe. Britain then expelled Malawi’s envoy to London and suspended aid worth $550 million over the next four years.

The freeze has left a yawning hole in the budget of a country that has relied on handouts for 40 percent of its revenues and has intensified a foreign currency shortage that is threatening the kwacha’s peg at 150 to the dollar.

The United States said last month it had placed on hold a $350 million aid package for Malawi after the government launched the deadly crackdown on protests.

Hague said: “Malawi’s grave economic crisis can only be tackled if the government works with the international donor community. If this doesn’t happen, the economic and social progress made in recent years will be lost.”

Riots that swept London and several other English cities this week have prompted some countries such as Iran whose human rights record has drawn strong Western criticism to say Britain has no right to lecture others about justice and fair play.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has described the four nights of looting, arson and violence, in which five people were killed, as “criminality, pure and simple”. Some critics of his government say poverty and discrimination are to blame.