Zimbabwe, speed up paying back Malawi its $20 million

Aug 18, 2011

There was a time not so long ago when Zimbabwe thought of Malawi as one of its poorer cousins. A decade of extreme economic decline and hardship significantly tamed much of of Zimbabwe's sense of superiority towards many of the neighbors. During that time US$20 million in food was borrowed from Malawi and the Malawians loudly want it back.

Southern Rhodesia was the favored country of the colonial-era Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland which comprised today's Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Southern Rhodesia therefore got a disproportionate share of economic attention and 'development,' a disparity which has continued up to today despite Zimbabwe's troubles.

At Zimbabwe's lowest moment, 2007/2008 it bought, US$ 20 million worth of maize from Malawi, which was enjoying bumper harvests that had previously mainly been associated with its bigger, more 'developed' and once more prosperous neighbor Zimbabwe. It was a stunning reversal of fortune and a huge psychological knock to Zimbabwe's sense of nationhood to have to buy maize from once chronically famine-hit Malawi. Similarly for Malawi, it was a huge boost to their self image to be able to sell maize to the once boastfully dismissive Zimbabweans. The money for the maize hasn't been paid yet.

As often happens, the two neighbors' relative fortunes may be changing again. Zimbabwe is slowly crawling out of its economic doldrums while Malawi is grappling with the kind of shortages and high prices and inflation that a few years ago they pitied the Zimbabweans for undergoing.
Although Malawi owes over US$ 800 million to various foreign creditors, it appears the outstanding $20 million owed it by Zimbabwe particularly rankles sections of the lender country, including a civil society organization called Malawi Watch. 

"Malawi Watch says president Bingu wa Mutharika must get the US$20milion debt back from Zimbabwe," reads an article. "“One way to help our economy recover is by recovering US$20 million which was unceremoniously lent to Zimbabwe. Malawian people need that money at this critical time of economic desperation.”

Of course Malawi could badly use that money now. It's economy is adjusting to the sudden shock of the 40% of its budget that came from western donors having been cut off after a tiff between Mutarika and Britain which so the two countries first expelling each others' diplomats.  

But apart from Malawi's genuine need for its money back, the call is also partly polemics and politicking. Mutharika and his country's civil society bodies are engaged in a bitter war of words and wits over claims that the president is becoming increasingly authoritarian, "like Zimbabwe's Mugabe," and also Mutharika's friend.

So the call for the repayment of the debt owed by Zimbabwe is also a dig at Mutharika. There were some Malawians who were opposed to lending Zimbabwe the food in the first place, probably partly because of antipathy to a Mugabe, who they believe is a negative influence on their own president. 

Zimbabwe may be slowly recovering but it has a debt of billions that it is behind on. However, it would be really good if it could speed up the repayment of the $20 million owed to Malawi. They came to Zimbabwe's aid in a time of need. The least that Zimbabwe could do is repay the debt at Malawi's own time of need, if not do more. 


Post a Comment