In Malawi, political scientists and human rights campaigners are looking back at 2012 as a year of both progress and setbacks. Over the past 12 months, Malawi gained its first woman president after the death of president Bingu wa Mutharika.
And, though the economy grew slowly, there was a return of donors who had withdrawn aid in protest over Mutharika’s human rights and governance policies.
Mustapha Hussein, a political scientist at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi in Zomba, says “there have been ups and downs and some negative things as well as positive things. On the positive side, the current government [of President Joyce Banda] has tried to stabilize the political environment. Politically, Malawi can be said to be stable. Unlike Bingu’s regime, there are no tensions between or among parties or between government and its citizens.”
Hussein says despite the stable political atmosphere, the country has not been faring well on the economic front.
“The issue of devaluation and floatation of the kwacha," he says, "has led to price increases that are affecting the disposable income of the people. They are suffering economically and the economic status of Malawi is fragile.”
Hussein says the change in the country’s top leadership helped calm the country’s contentious political atmosphere.
“The death of Bingu wa Mutharika was a sad occasion," he says, "but at the same time, it gave hope for changes for both on the political front as well as on the economic front. Prior to that there were political tensions; there were misunderstandings between the government and civil society which culminated in the demonstration in July (2011) where we lost lives.”
However some Malawians have been accusing human rights groups of deliberately muting their criticisms of the new administration. They say the administration has failed to respond to consumers affected by currency devaluation and price hikes.
But human rights activist Billy Banda, who is the executive director for a rights lobby group Malawi Watch, says they were silent because they wanted to build support for the new government considering the many problems it had inherited.
“We were not deliberately keeping quiet," he says, "but were lobbying silently so that the new administration [with its difficulties] would be given sufficient support. But by giving support, that does not necessarily mean that were condoning the current administration. We are urging the administration to open a window of interaction so that whenever people raise concerns they should take heed.”
In her Christmas address to the nation, president Joyce Banda cited the country’s struggling economy and asked Malawians to remain patient. She did so amid threats of protests by the Consumers Association of Malawi over the rising cost of imported fuel and farm inputs. They’ve contributed to a drop in living standards.
Analysts say the success of the new year depends in part on whether the government’s austerity measures – blamed by some for increasing hardships – can help turn around the economy.
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