Written by RAPHAEL TENTHANI
The Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority, that club of wise men and women that decides at what price to sell petroleum products, last Wednesday decided it was high time they hiked the pump price of fuel. Painful though this was Malawians have resigned to fate. Since our political leaders decided not only to devalue the kwacha but also to let it float to find its equilibrium according to market trends, frequent shocks in the pricing of goods and services would inevitably hurt but certainly would not surprise anyone.
So when MERA announced that come Thursday morning there would be 5.79 and 6.3 per cent increases in the pump price of petrol and diesel respectively motorists simply braced to dig deeper in their already hard-hit pockets.
What was shocking about Wednesday's MERA announcement was therefore not the news of the price increase per se; what was shocking was the counter-announcement that came fast on the heels on the first announcement. In fact, MERA said, we were just joking with you, people; the fuel price remains the same.
C'mon, good people of MERA, the market is already a mess following the devaluation of the kwacha; we do not want it to be confused further because of indecisions by those we entrusted to make decisions on our behalf. Wednesday's was one bad, insensitive joke the suffering Malawians could do without.
The Wednesday yo-yo game by MERA begs a lot of questions, chief among them being: is MERA really in control? Surely nobody can buy into its publicist Edward Mponda's explanation that the price hike about-turn was due to a "technical glitch". What technical glitch? Maybe Mponda wanted to say "political glitch"?
We all know that having two price hikes in as many months would not endear the Joyce Banda administration, in fact any administration, to anyone. With an election not too far from now no government would want to annoy potential voters with frequent price shocks of essential commodities. We can therefore safely deduce therefore that MERA's hand was twisted by partisan political interests.
After all, the self-styled political engineer Bakili Muluzi already rightly put it: Malawians have short memories. If the pump price of fuel hits a thousand kwacha per litre, for instance, Malawians will become easily nostalgic of the Mutharika era forgetting that we are in this mess because of the old man's needless arrogance. That fuel was cheaper but not available during the Bingu era but is expensive but available now may not matter much.
So the Banda administration understandably must be wary of the run-away prices of fuel and may wish to keep MERA on a short leash.
But, be that as it may, one thinks MERA should have weighed both the political and economic implications before rushing to make the Wednesday price hike announcement. After all with the Automatic Pricing Mechanism we expect fuel prices to follow the movement of the kwacha against the dollar. So one would think the good people at MERA must have agonised over all these fundamentals before coming up with the Wednesday announcement of the impending fuel price hike.
For MERA to therefore come back within hours to eat its own words does not auger well with such a crucial office. It is as clumsy as it is amateurish. How can the desperate nation take these folks seriously again?
On her return from her maiden big speech before a world audience in the Big Apple, Abiti said as long as she does all the right things and makes a difference she does not care if she is re-elected or not. She rightly observed that such statements annoy some people in her party whose livelihood depend on how long she stays in State House.
If indeed her re-election is secondary, doing the right things is primary; her government must free important departments like MERA to do the right things. We are still smarting from Bingu's empty arrogance against devaluing the kwacha. While the old man held on to a useless artificially strong kwacha essential goods were disappearing from the shelves because manufacturers had no forex to procure raw materials with which to replenish them. Does Mama Joyce want to keep prices of fuel artificially low simply to keep her chances of re-election high at the expense of failing to sustain the petroleum industry?
If MERA thinks it is the right time to adjust upwards the fuel price let no politics interfere. After all it is the politicians that embraced policies that necessitated the Automatic Pricing Mechanism. Do they not say if you make a bed you must lie on it?
More of the same?
One of the sad realities of our multiparty democracy is the politicisation of almost everything. Some key positions in the civil service are filled not based on competence or training of an individual but how politically connected the prospective holder is. In worst case scenarios even tribes come into play. We all recall in recent times when people from a certain geographical area monopolised plum positions in government and government business.
Many thought the new PP administration, coming as it did through an accident of fate, would bring a breath of fresh air. But what is happening in the Village Development Committees (VDCs) in districts like Thyolo, Zomba and Phalombe does not give one much hope. There are disturbing reports that PP officials are going about hijacking government vehicles from the District Commissioners' offices in the name of "re-arranging" these VDCs.
But VDCs were established at group village-head level and Area Development Committees (ADCs) at Traditional Authority level as governance structures to act as vehicles for development initiatives at grassroots level before they reach district councils. These are duly fused into the local government structures.
There are specific tenures for VDCs and ADCs. Once elected into these committees, office bearers are trained to build their capacity. In fact some of the committee members that are being replaced have just had their training. Training new people now will be a needless waste of resources.
VDCs and ADCs are supposed to be non-political and not based on religious or ethnic affiliation. They are supposed to be purely developmental and governance structures, meaning that any government that comes into power at any time is supposed to recognise and work with these structures.
But there are reports from the afro-mentioned districts that these structures are being restructured and reconstituted to accommodate political figures. This is a sad reality in our nascent democracy. Development must see no colour. Despite differing political persuasions all of us are supposed to be Malawians with one goal: to see the land we call Malawi develop to the next level. Colouring grassroots structures with politics is a recipe for disaster.
If President Banda is not aware of this retrogressive development she should intervene to bring sanity. After all once she took oath of office on April the 7th she ceased to be PP president only; she became President of the Republic of Malawi and therefore president for all of us regardless of a political party colour that attracts us.