October 13, 2005

Opposition attacks government on food crisis

Malawi's food security crisis has fuelled a fierce battle in parliament, with the opposition approving a motion urging government to declare a state of national disaster. An opposition Malawi Congress Party member of parliament (MP) proposed the motion criticising government's handling of the food crisis, which was opposed by MPs aligned with President Bingu wa Mutharika. The opposition, which on paper holds a majority of seats, also asked Mutharika to explain the whereabouts of US $41.9 million approved by parliament to buy maize about three months ago.

Malawi is in the grip of food shortages brought on by the worst drought in a decade, compounded by the late delivery of fertilisers and seed. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that the number of people in need could rise to five million - almost half the population - in the coming months. The government plans to feed 2.2 million in the north and centre of the country through a voucher scheme backed by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), while WFP focuses on the harder-hit south. Mutharika has also launched a Feed the Nation Fund and asked Malawians to dig into their pockets to help the needy.

Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Uladi Mussa told parliament that the government had bought 22,000 mt of maize for commercial sale, while another 20,000 mt had been set aside for aid distribution. Minister of Information Patricia Kaliati has accused the opposition of politicising hunger and called on MPs to establish distribution points for government-bought maize in their constituencies.

Analyst Boniface Dulani pointed out that Malawi's opposition and civil society organisations have been urging the government to declare a state of disaster to enable international relief agencies to step up efforts to provide humanitarian relief. "Ironically, the very same opposition has been criticised for distracting the government from tackling the food security crisis by its attempts to impeach the president; now that they are raising the food crisis, the government wants to send the message that it has everything under control," Dulani commented.

Political bickering between Mutharika and his political rival, former president of the country and now chairman of the United Democratic Front (UDF), Bakili Muluzi, has been raging since June. The UDF has proposed an impeachment motion because Mutharika left the party after it sponsored him in national elections. Mutharika formed his own political organisation, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), but which has no seats in parliament.

Food experts previously estimated the number of people facing food shortages during the 2005/06 marketing year (April/March) at around 4.2 million, or 34 percent of the total population, but that figure was based on a maize price-band of 19-23 kwacha/kg (about 14 to 18 US cents). Some southern districts have already recorded prices of nearly 33 kwacha (about 26 US cents) - way beyond the pockets of the poor. UN agencies are due to meet next week to discuss a possible revision to an $88 million "flash" appeal to donors launched in August. According to the UN Development Programme, about 65 percent of Malawi's population live on less than $1 a day. (Rts)

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