Democracy moves slowly as China steals march in Malawi – Susan Dalgety

Chinese influence is strong in Africa, finds Susan Dalgety as she and the people of Malawi await the results of a general election.

A woman casts her vote at Masasa Primary School polling station in Mzuzu on 21 May (Picture: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty)
A woman casts her vote at Masasa Primary School polling station in Mzuzu on 21 May (Picture: Patrick Meinhardt/AFP/Getty)

Patience is a necessity, if not a virtue, here in Malawi. Phlegmatic queues are the order of the day, whether in an Airtel shop, waiting for 20 minutes to buy a voucher for internet access, or at the not-so fast food outlet, where chips can take an inordinately long time to fry.

No-one seems to mind, not even congenitally impatient souls like myself. Waiting is a way of life. Waiting for the rains to give life to the maize. Waiting for an international NGO to build a bore-hole in a village. Waiting to find out who will lead the country for the next five years. Waiting.

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Malawi went to the polls on Tuesday, 21 May. As I write, on Friday morning, the final result has still to be declared.

Dr Jane Ansah, chairperson of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC), has become something of a folk hero. Her twice daily updates on live television are eagerly awaited by a nation desperate for news.

None more so than her scheduled 9pm broadcast on Thursday night. “This is it,” said everyone, “the result is about to be declared.”

Except it wasn’t. Several complaints about the voting process had been lodged, from accusations of vote-rigging to tally sheets not adding up.

“We have to dedicate a great deal of our time to address alleged irregularities and to investigate and resolve some of these complaints according to the Commission’s mandate to ensure that the results brought to you are accurate,” declared Dr Ansah.

“I appeal to my fellow Malawians to exercise patience ...” and with that she was gone, leaving an expectant nation waiting.

The next update is in a few hours’ time, and I suspect we will learn that the sitting President, Professor Arthur Peter Mutharika, will have scraped back in for another five years.

His strategy of focusing on his base, the millions of rural poor, seems to have paid off, much to the frustration of urban Malawians crying out for change.

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Their desperation is understandable. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. A respected American publication, Global Finance Magazine, declared last month that it was the fourth poorest, worse off even than countries such as Mozambique, South Sudan and Liberia which have endured terrible conflict in recent years.

Malawi’s continued poverty confounds many development experts. The country is peaceful, the land fertile, and its people hard-working. International donors, including the UK and Scottish governments, invest around £1.2 billion a year in aid, ranging from humanitarian aid at times of crisis, such as the recent floods, to longer-term interventions in health, education and climate change.

There is support for anti-corruption work, private sector development and tackling HIV/Aids. There are plentiful five-year plans, national and local, linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Conferences and workshops abound, and yet for the overwhelming majority of Malawians, the millions living in rural villages hidden in the country’s interior, miles from the main roads, life is essentially unchanged since before colonialism.

There have been some notable successes, however. Malawi has one of the highest prevalences of HIV in the world, with one million people affected, nearly ten per cent of the adult population. But it has made remarkable progress in tacking the epidemic and is on track to achieve UNAIDS’s 90-90-90 target by next year. This means that 90 per cent of people with HIV will know their status, 90 per cent will get anti-retro viral treatment (ARVs) and 90 per cent of those on ARVs will be well.

Quite an achievement for a country that causes many people to shrug and say: “Oh Malawi, what can be done?”

Standing in one of Malawi’s oldest fabric shops earlier this week, the scale of the challenges facing the country became chillingly clear. I was with Debra, an old friend and an accomplished dressmaker, eager to choose fabric for some summer dresses.

“The Malawian fabric is poor quality,” said the shop-owner, “You need Kenyan or Nigerian cloth, but the real stuff is hard to get,” he added, shrugging with obvious boredom at yet another white woman looking for “authenticity”.

Twenty minutes later, in the heat of the market across the road, I found out why “the real stuff” is hard to get. The colourful cotton fabric that is so redolent of sub-Saharan Africa now comes stamped “Made in China”.

Chinese “real-fake” African cloth has flooded the market, both in East and West Africa, and the chitenjes worn by women everywhere across Malawi are now more likely to have been manufactured 6,000 miles away in China than in Malawi or Tanzania.

Chinese influence is everywhere in Malawi. The new national parliament building, opened in 2010, was financed by a grant from the Chinese government and built by a Chinese construction firm.

As was the national football stadium, opened in 2017, the new road in the north of the country, from Karonga to Chitipa, and several luxury hotels.

Chinese shops, which sell everything from penis-enlarging gel for men (“last longer, larger size” boasts the garish packaging) to fake Louis Vuitton handbags, have sprung up, distorting the traditional retail market dominated by Asian-Malawians. And last September, at a conference in Beijing, China’s leader-for-life, President Xi Jinping, promised 40 African countries, including Malawi, a share of $60 billion in aid and loans over the next three years.

The money comes with “no political strings attached”, promised Xi. “China does not interfere in Africa’s internal affairs, and does not impose its own will on Africa,” he added, with a not-so subtle dig at countries like Britain and USA which energetically promote good governance along with their humanitarian aid.

China does not care if Malawi’s elections are fair and free, or if its markets are properly regulated, or its citizens educated. China sees only a market of 18 million people and growing. The USA gets its iPhones made in China. Malawi gets its chitenjes.

President Xi sees, too, a vote at the UN, an ally in years to come when the global economy – and therefore global politics – is dominated by China.

The long-term fate of Malawi will depend not as much on who wins the election this week, but who wins the trade war between China and the USA. As will ours.

NEWSFLASH: Malawi is still waiting. MEC chairperson Dr Ansah, said on Friday afternoon “we’re almost there”, but added that the Presidential election was too close to call and all complaints must be investigated.