Posted on June 17, 2005

‘We Cannot Afford Such Luxury’ (SA), June 17

Blantyre — Opposition and civic groups are in uproar in the poor southern African nation of Malawi over state plans to buy a $545 000 limousine for President Bingu wa Mutharika while more than one million people face starvation.

“The decision has come at a wrong time when the country is facing serious food shortages,” Nancy Tembo, an opposition lawmaker of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), was quoted as saying by state television on Thursday.

Malawi, which consumes two million tons of the national staple maize annually, plans to spend $50m to import 300 000 tons to avert famine following drought this year that reduced crop yields by 24%.

Finance minister Goodall Gondwe defended the move to acquire a top-of the-range Maybach 62 made by Mercedes-Benz, saying it “was necessary to buy the vehicle because of its safety features”.

Also speaking on television on Thursday, he said the country would not feel the effects as the payments would “be spread over a period of time”.

Civic groups joined opposition lawmakers in condemning the move.

“It’s something we never expected from the president. That sort of money could buy 45 000 bags of maize,” said Collins Magalasi from the watchdog Malawi Economic Justice Network.

Rafif Hajat, who heads a policy intervention institute, said with 1.3 million people facing starvation, and “excluded from debt relief, we cannot afford such luxury”.

Broken promises of a stringent budget

Mutharika, who took over from his former mentor Bakili Muluzi last year, had pledged to trim state spending, eschew luxuries and fight graft when he came to power.

Muluzi, who ruled for a decade, had drawn trenchant criticism for buying 39 new Mercedes Benz cars for his ministers three years ago at a cost of $2.5m.

About 60% of Malawi’s 11 million people live below the poverty threshold of less than $1 a day in the former British colony, which is also badly hit by the Aids pandemic.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other donors have suspended more than $75m in aid over concerns about overspending during Muluzi’s 10-year tenure.

Another Southern African fan of the Maybach, which has a 550-horsepower engine and claims to be the ultimate in refinement, is the continent’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III of Swaziland.

In a country which also has one of the world’s highest HIV/Aids infection rates and where more than 65% of the 1.2 million inhabitants live below the poverty line, Mswati has a Maybach for himself and a new fleet of Mercedes for his dozen wives.