Nothing prepares any nation state for the moment diplomatic relations end.
However, when the nation state’s actions lead to the thawing of the relations, nothing prepares it for the mammoth task of shielding itself from the barrage of criticism that follows when the childlike excitement of crossing a historical divide dissipates, and it turns out that a wrong choice was made.
This is the exact situation post-1994 Malawi finds herself in, after making two crucial decisions that have defined its diplomatic position in the past seven years. The first defining decision was made in January 2008, when the country’s leadership decided that its 42-year-old relationship with Taiwan had run out of steam.
As expected, the Republic of China (Taiwan) felt hard-done by, and accused Malawi of being lured by a US$6 billion package in aid and other inducements offered by the People’s Republic of China.
The second defining moment came when the late President Bingu wa Mutharika expelled British High Commissioner to Malawi, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, in a row over a leaked diplomatic cable that purported that Mutharika was "becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism". The development sent shockwaves across the country- as happens when relations thaw, and continuity of development initiatives descend into trepidation.
These two remarkable developments put a full stop to the traditional friendly attitude attributed to Malawians. Today, these developments stand like a glittering pile of Malawi’s unpredictability, diplomacy-wise, and may even act as a fortress and frontier in the eyes of would-be diplomatic friends.
More so because, even though the British Government and its Malawian counterpart have sorted their “differences” and re-posted envoys to each other’s Capital cities, memories that land-locked Malawi, despite being poor, is steeped in its own order- an order somewhat condemned for posing as self-sufficient while the majority of the population wallows in poverty- still linger across the borders.
Coincidentally, the two defining diplomatic moments came under the tutorage of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Coincidentally, too, the decision to expel Cochrane-Dyet came when former president, People’s Party leader Joyce Banda, was serving as Foreign Affairs Minister.
Now that the DPP, albeit under the new leadership of President Peter Mutharika, has come back into power, questions inevitably linger over its foreign policy.
From the look of things, however, the DPP regime seems to have something up its sleeve, in terms of foreign relations. A good case in point is President Peter Mutharika’s decision to place the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Corporation- under the political headship of George Thapatula Chaponda- forth on the pecking order of ministerial protocol.
In fact, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Corporation, Chaponda, is forth only to the President, Vice-President Saulos Klaus Chilima, and Finance Minister Goodall Edward Gondwe.
This notwithstanding, Institute for Policy Interaction executive director, Rafiq Hajat, says it is too early to fathom Malawi’s foreign relations policy.
He is, however, quick to point out that it will not come as a surprise to see Malawi establishing diplomatic relations with countries that may help her in the areas of technical and infrastructural development.
“In the end, every country looks at what is in it (the relationship) for it,” says Hajat.
While Chaponda has not come out clearly on what democratic path the country plans to tread on, President Mutharika has hinted that, while his administration plans to nurture the relationships (bilateral/multilateral) that already exist, it also seeks to extend its friends’ net and ‘fish’ in the Bric- the acronym for the combined economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China -countries.
“We (Malawi) plan to take advantage of the economic rivalry that exists between the US and Bric countries to attract Foreign Direct Investment into the country. A number of countries in the world are recognising the economic viability of the Bric countries,” the President is quoted as saying on his return from the US/Africa Summit in August.
While other commentators say it is too early to pronounce judgement on Mutharika’s foreign relations intentions within 100 days, others, such as human rights activist Billy Mayaya, say the current administration has no choice but to play ‘Good Girl’ to the development partners.
Mayaya cited the issue of Cashgate, saying it has made donors jittery, and that the current administration just has to learn to play it nice in the hope that the aid taps will be let loose again. He says one of the instruments being used by the current administration to sooth donor egos is austerity measures.
In the wake of donors’ reluctance to open the aid taps, enthuses Mayaya, “initial signs are that the President is sensitive about public scrutiny and commitments he made towards austerity given the increasingly faltering economy”.
Whether this state of affairs would hold once the donors play game remains to be seen, though.
What is clear, however, is that, so far, it has been more pronouncements of intent with no real action on the ground.
It is also clear that the current administration might have learned that solitude invites an uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability to others, and that only diplomacy- which is a group endeavour-ensures that leaders of a nation state are encased by their own people, and friends of good will.
And that, only then, do nations cease to be ‘lonely’ in a crowded world.