June 20, 2002

Debt relieves, International Warnings Against Third Term

European donors announced cuts in Malawi's debt burden, but at the same time expressed reservations over constitutional moves that would allow President Bakili Muluzi to stand for a third term. Germany on Wednesday, June 19 cancelled US $240.000 of Malawi's debt as part of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund's (IMF) Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative. It followed an announcement by Italy a day earlier that it would write off Malawi's total debt of US $226.667.

Malawi is among 40 of the world's poor countries identified for debt relief under the HIPC initiative. Germany's Ambassador to Malawi, Franz Ring, told IRIN that the debt cancellation, and Berlin's ongoing disbursements of aid and emergency food relief, were development programmes that had no direct link to the political situation in the country.

As the third term controversy deepens, Muluzi last month banned demonstrations related to the proposed constitutional amendment, and instructed police and the army to stamp out any violations of the ban. "Germany is concerned to note that restrictions have been imposed on assemblies and peaceful demonstrations in relation to the proposal," Ring said. The EU on Tuesday, June 18, voiced its concern over the political developments in Malawi. "The EU recognises the right of the national assembly of Malawi to amend its national constitution in this way. Nevertheless, since a national constitution is an important safeguard for citizens' rights and a framework for stable governance, the EU urges the government of Malawi to ensure that there is wide and informed debate on this important issue conducted openly and with full freedom of expression," an EU statement said.

On Wednesday, June 19, the High Court in Blantyre threw out an application by human rights organisations fighting against a possible third term for Muluzi. Judge Maxon Mkandawire said that he needed to hear substantive arguments from both sides on such a sensitive matter before granting an injunction against the government. Also on Wednesday, June 19, over 300 University of Malawi students at Chancellor College in Zomba, more than 60 km northeast of Blantyre, boycotted classes in protest against the proposed amendment bill. The bill was expected to be tabled in parliament this week, but is now expected to be presented on Thursday, 27 June.

Earlier this week, Malawi has been given US $14.6 million in aid from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID on Monday, June 17, granted the government of Malawi what amounts to Malawian kwacha 1,1 billion as part of an ongoing cooperative effort to target poor sectors of the country. Over three million people in Malawi will need food aid until March next year, a joint Food and Agricultural Organisation and World Food Programme (WFP) assessment has found. Roger Yochelson, USAID Mission Director, said in a statement that the funds would be used to import maize, continue support of the Malawi Environmental Endowment Trust and for family planning activities. The US $14.6 million brings the amount of aid given to Malawi to US $20.6 million. It was the latest tranche of funds under USAID's performance-based Non-project Assistance Programmes in the agricultural and environmental sectors, he said.

At the same time, the United States of America has expressed concern over the proposed constitutional moves that would allow President Bakili Muluzi to stand for a third term. The US government raised its concerns in a statement issued by its embassy in Malawi capital Lilongwe June 7. The US, has also expressed concern over Malawi President's ban on demonstrations. "We also note with concern the imposition of restrictions on assemblies or peaceful demonstrations regarding the proposal," said the statement in part. The statement warned that the amendment jeopardised the democratic status Malawi attained in 1994.

Tension is building in Malawi between pro-ruling party supporters and religious organisations, human rights groups and NGOs who have thrown their weight against any attempt to amend the constitution to allow Muluzi to run again. Critics of the government's unofficial campaign, have threatened protest action to persuade Muluzi not to stand again. "As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, as commander-in-chief of the police services, I have the obligation to protect the people of this country. I will not allow anarchy in this county," Muluzi told a public rally recently in announcing his ban on demonstrations either for or against a constitutional amendment.

The Catholic and Presbyterian churches, with more than seven million followers, have spoken out against any constitutional change that would allow Muluzi to stand after his current second term expires. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP), established under the Episcopal Conference of Malawi, said the third term issue had created confusion, fear and division among Malawians and that scarce resources were being wasted to promote the third term agenda. "We judge that the third term contradicts the common good, because it seeks the interests of only a few. We would like to put it on record, therefore, that we as CCJP say an absolute no to a third term," a statement said. (IRIN, AFRICAN CHURCH INFORMATION SERVICE)

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