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Malawi

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President Bingu wa Mutharika, died on April 6,2012 of a heart attack. Mr. Mutharika was hospitalized on Thursday morning in Malawi's capital, Lilongwe. He was 78 years old. President Joyce Banda, 62, emerged as Africa's second female president on April 7th 2012. She has promised to shake things up and improve relations with aid donor countries. Bingu wa Mutharika's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), whose leaders he chose personally, had the numbers in parliament to enact his proposals. Its 14 standing committees, dominated by DPP chairpersons, do not attempt to provide checks on executive power. While he was alive, the president's primary political concern was to ensure a smooth succession at the end of his term in 2014. His younger brother, Peter Mutharika, had been taken from his academic career in the United States through several cabinet ministries in a process viewed by political analysts as an apprenticeship.

The main opposition parties, the Malawi Congress Party and the United Democratic Front which ruled under Hastings Banda and Bakili Muluzi respectively, have been stymied by policy disagreements and funding crises. At the new Chinese constructed parliament building in Lilongwe, there is little debate even on unpopular measures such as the costly changes to the Malawian flag in July 2010.

To outside observers, President Mutharika appeared to be emulating his presidency on that of Hastings Banda (1964-1994), for whom he had great admiration. His threats to close down a newspaper for reporting prevarications that denigrate Malawian government could be characterized as "vintage" Banda. Western embassies that once lectured the government about democratic freedoms and economic prudence now feel similarly chastised.

Mutharika's reputation in Malawi and on the international stage - he is current chairperson of the African Union (AU) and prospective chair of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa - is dependent on Malawi's economic performance and the political calm that prevails. Four consecutive years of surplus maize production have been impressive thanks to imports of fertilizers. The million plus tons of maize surplus does not translate automactically into a surplus at the household level, and various internation agencies have warned of impending food shortages in the populous southern region. Although sales of Malawi's export stable, burley tobacco, concluded on a reasonably positive note, a possible international ban by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control on additives on cigarette continues to be discussed. The market for burley tobacco is heavily dependant on them.

The development of the Kayelekera uranium mine, which is now approaching full production of 3.3 million pounds of yellowcake annually, is not yet compensating for the threat to the all important tobacco industry. It has the potential to yield royalties around $45 million dollars annually. Additional business ventures include a cigarette-manufacturing facility and the opening of a new commercial link to the Indian Ocean via the Shire and Zambezi rivers.

Foreign aid will continue to support the country's macroeconomic statistics and help keep the GDP growth projections above 6% in 2010 and 2011. Aid patterns are showing signs of moving from the west to east, as China and Iran take an interest in the country and as traditional donors begin to question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of their programs.

As long as the macroeconomic statistics are positive and maize is plentiful, not everybody will be worried about questions of democracy or continued dependence on foreign aid, or even the increasingly nationalistic rhetoric of the president. Homosexuality is banned. Of more general concern is the 3% population-growth rate, which means that half of Malawi's 15 million people are under the age of 15, while unemployment remains high as does the percentage of the population affected by the aids virus (12%). In addition, fuel shortages coupled with a serious scarcity of foreign exchange along with frequent powercuts are also some of the challenges ahead.

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Malawi maintains an embassy in the United States at 1029 Vermont Avenue, NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20005 (tel. 202-721-0270; fax 202-721-0288). Malawi's Permanent Mission to the United Nations is located at 866 UN Plaza, Suite 486, New York, NY 10017 (tel.: 212-317-8738/8718; fax: 212-317-8729; e-mail: Malawinewyork@aol.com or MalawiU@aol.com). Malawi also maintains an Honorary Consulate in Los Angeles at 44970 Via Renaissance, Temecula, California 92590 (office number, 951-676-2476; fax number, 951-676-1568; and e-mail, malawiconsul@yahoo.com).
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