Malawi President Arthur Peter Mutharika said the recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa targeting mostly African migrants are unfortunate.
About four thousand Malawi citizens in South Africa were affected by the attacks. The government has since sent buses to bring the citizens home.
“We hope by the end of next week, all Malawians who want to come back home, they will come back home, and we will assist them in reinserting them and so forth,” Mutharika said.
In an exclusive interview with VOA, President Mutharika says he has been in touch with South African President Jacob Zuma ahead of the planned Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting to be held in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, April 29.
He said warm diplomatic relations between Lilongwe and Pretoria will remain despite the xenophobic attacks, adding Malawi Foreign Minister George Chaponda will meet his counterpart in South Africa over the weekend about the xenophobic attacks.
“I am in touch with my brother, President Zuma, we will be talking and next week, we will have a summit of SADC in Harare and I am sure we will talk about these things, the subject is about integration,” Mutharika said, adding the regional leaders want to discourage xenophobic attacks, since he said that will undermine regional integration efforts.
The president said he is also determined to root out corruption in the Southern African nation. However, he denied reports that corruption in endemic in the country.
“I don’t think it is endemic, it is certainly institutional and to some extent it is structural," he said. “I think what happened is that there was laxity in managing for example public money financial systems. The laws were there but there was no accountability.
"When people traveled somewhere and got government funds they were supposed to account for [that] and the law requires that, [and] they never accounted for it. Here was this culture of total irresponsibility and that is what happened," Mutharika said.
Issues of graft
The government, the president said, has established the public management finance system to address the issues of graft.
Mutharika said as part of his effort to weed out corruption, he replaced the director of the Anti-Corruption Bureau with Lucas Kondowe, a U.S.-based expert on money-laundering and fraud who was working for Deloitte Touche. There is a new deputy director as well, Malawi attorney Reyneck Matemba.
Mutharika said to show his seriousness, he increased the budget for the anti-corruption body by 160 percent as well.
He said he also replaced the director of public prosecution after seeking assistance from the British government to help fight corruption.
“So we have put all the mechanisms in place, investigations are going on, some very senior people have been indicted. When I was leaving, the accountant general was arrested, investigations are continuing and we expected them to lead to wherever they may lead,” Mutharika said.
An audit last year uncovered a major financial scandal, locally termed “cash-gate,” in his predecessor’s administration, in which about $60 million of public funds were stolen. Several high-profile government officials were implicated in the scandal, which led to the attempted assassination of the then finance ministry's budget director, Paul Mphwiyo.
Opposition supporters said the government is using state institutions, including the police, to persecute and prosecute opponents under the guise of fighting corruption. The government denies the accusation.
Mutharika said he inherited empty government coffers due to the financial scandal that led international donor partners to withhold financial support to Malawi. Donors account for nearly 40 percent of Malawi’s budget.
“It was a challenge,” said the president. “When I took over the government, the import cover was only three weeks; it’s now almost six months. There was almost no reserve to speak off, now we have almost close to a billion U.S. dollars: about 600 and something in the reserve bank and about 3 million in the private banks and the bureaus.
"Total is about a billion [dollars]. It has never happened - the highest accumulation in the history of Malawi and I hope that we can double that. So I am excited about that now the Kwacha has now stabilized,” he said.
President Mutharika recently issued a directive restricting both local and international travel for senior officials of the administration, to cut cost and save funds. He outlined to VOA other cost-cutting measures his government has been undertaking.
"For the last 11 months, we have been operating on our own with no donor support, we used our own resources - proper collection of taxes, cutting back on spending, travels and all these kinds of things. For example ,I reduced the size if cabinet, eliminating seven ministries, we want 18 ministries, a cabinet of 20 including the president and the vice president. That saves us K20 billion [$50 million] for over five years,” the president said.
“I have also cut back on travel, proper management, ministers everybody including myself and that is saving us K70 billion [$175 million ] in five years. For us, that’s a lot of money and that alone makes a difference,” he added.
Mutharika said Malawi still needs assistance from its international donors to help with infrastructure development to boost the economy. The president was, however, hopeful that the new financial measures his administration has implemented would wean the country from dependence on foreign donors in the next five years.
Malawi faces droughts that often affect its agricultural output and put pressure on the economy. Recent floods also left scores of people dead and some displaced from their homes.
Critics accused the government of failing to put mechanisms in place to protect citizens from the storm as well as ensure food security.
But, Mutharika said the country needs to move away from traditional rain-fed agriculture to mechanized farming to meet the needs of the people.
He said the Greenbelt Initiative that was started by deceased president Bingu wa Mutharika, elder brother of professor Mutharika, could help resolve some of the challenges the country faces in agriculture.
“Under that initiative, right now we are planning to put 1 million hectares under irrigation and we hope that will help with growing food for consumption. But also cash crops like sugar canes, soybeans, pigeon peas and others, which have tremendous market in Asia. So, we are moving in that direction, and we hope that by doing that we would probably be food sufficient,” he said.
Mutharika said before his first term expires in 2019, he wants to improve the living conditions of Malawians and to ensure that citizens are better off than when he was elected into office.
“At the end of the five years, I would hope that people would see that Malawi got better, their lives got better in terms of their personal lives and their incomes and other social instruments that make life comfortable, and they will see more infrastructural development in the country,” he said.
President Mutharika was the guest of honor at the U.S. Congressional International Conservation Caucus Foundation - a bipartisan group. The organization wants to set up a bi-partisan caucus in Malawi’s parliament on conservation.
While in Washington, Mutharika also met with the United States trade representative, officials of the Export Import Bank as well as officials from a tobacco buyers group.
He returns home on Saturday.