In September 2015, President Peter Mutharika made headlines following his trip to the United Nations 70th General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, the United States of America.
Before departure for the assembly on September 21, Mutharika asked the country’s development partners, the private sector and well-wishers to assist Malawi avert hunger.
He sounded the alarm at a press briefing at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe where he described the current hunger Malawians are facing as the worst in many years. He said the number of people to face starvation is likely to increase as time goes.
At that time, Mutharika said 2.8 million people were in dire need of food aid and that the country had developed the 2015/2016 Food Insecurity Response Plan which required US$146.378 million (K81 billion).
Ironically, a few hours later, Mutharika left the country in a chartered jet for New York at a time the country was grappling with a number of challengers both socially and economically.
On September 23, The Daily Times learnt that Mutharika’s trip to the UN cost the taxpayer over K330 million.
But government through Director of Information, Bright Molande, played down the issue, claiming some of the government officials were sponsored by different organisations both locally and internationally.
“There are different categories, for example, the Ministry of Gender has sent a big number of people to the meeting but these government officials are being funded by the UN. You must understand that there will be a number of side meetings taking place. A lot of people would want to take advantage of that and strike business deals and meet potential investors because the world will be meeting at one place,” said Molande.
Questions over DPP members
The social media and other online platforms were awash with reports that among the delegates that travelled with Mutharika were members of the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) whose roles on the trip were not clear.
However, Minister of Information Jappie Mhango on September 26 told Malawi News that the whole issue was blown out of proportion.
Mhango said people were not differentiating between a presidential delegation and an overall Malawi delegation.
“The people that government has paid for are those under presidential delegation. There are some people who have gone there using their own resources or after sourcing their own sponsorship…I cannot speak on behalf of the people who have gone there using their own means, but are still recognized as members of the Malawi delegation,” said Mhango.
Truths and half truths Mutharika’s trip to the assembly was marred by allegations and conjectures, truths and half truths which up to now the President himself has hardly clarified.
Analysts on September 26 told our sister paper Malawi News that government was not honest and transparent enough on this matter. And Chancellor College political analyst Boniface Dulani said government officials were simply spinning truths and half truths.
“In the end, there is a vacuum and the public is looking for what to fill that space with. That is not doing any good to the government because it has allowed the public to look for the truth themselves,” said Dulani.
Another analyst from the same college, Blessings Chinsinga, described the development as a hallmark of politics of patronage.
Chinsinga said the development was not strange. He said it was a way of rewarding political supporters.
“You take on board people who will have nothing to do at the Assembly and at the end they get allowances. Political logic is different from rational logic. Rational logic will tell you there are problems in the country that you need to be as prudent as possible, while political logic will tell you to do whatever you can to get more supporters,” he said.
US issued 115 visas
As the debate continued on the size of the Malawi delegation to the 70th UN General Assembly, on October 3, it emerged that the United States (US) Embassy in Malawi issued 115 visas for the entourage.
US Ambassador Virginia Palmer confirmed that the Embassy issued the visas but declined to give details.
Palmer said: “I am actually forbidden by US law to talk about the number of visas and to who we issued them because these are confidential matters between the applicant and visa officer.”
Malawi is broke
Despite spending over K330 million on the UNGA trip to, Mutharika went to town on civil servants in the country blaming them for contributing to economic woes the country is facing through their salary demands.
He said the country’s programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was off-track because of the big appetite for salaries which bloated the wage bill.
Mutharika vowed that his administration would not affect any salary increase until the economy recovers.
He was speaking on October 9, 2015 at Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe, where he briefed the nation on his two week trip to the UNGA.
Again ironically, Mutharika has been accused by different stakeholders of failing to lead by example by, among other things, spending needlessly on political rallies and the UN summit.
Commenting on the bloated entourage that accompanied him to New York, Mutharika described the reports as garbage which was only meant to discredit his government.
Mutharika, who purportedly had with him a list of the Malawian delegation to the UN meeting, said only a few officials were sponsored by government, claiming that the rest were funded by UN agencies and other non-governmental organisations.
Interestingly, journalists, who attended the briefing, were not granted access to the list to verify it. Additionally, Mutharika did not come out clear on the exact number of people who were funded by taxpayers.
He also took time justifying his continued chartering of planes at a time the majority of Malawians are languishing in dire poverty.