The Curious Case of the Press Conference at Zobue
Updated: Jan 21, 2020
The stubborn persistence of power shortages could very well threaten a Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) comeback next year. Precious time is quickly running out on Bingu’s Party. Every voter, whether directly or indirectly affected by the ongoing electricity crisis, will consciously consider the power outages, load-shedding schedules, ESCOM’s empty promises of power supply and government’s laxity on the crisis as they check the faces to lead them form May 2019. In anxious anticipation of a disastrous political impact, it dawned on the Malawi Government to resort to the installation of rented mobile diesel-powered electricity generators. The Malawi Government is desperate.
There is, however, a major question: what prompted ESCOM’s Chairman (Perks Ligoya), Chief Executive Officer (Allexon Chiwaya) and the Ministry of Energy’s Chief Director (Chimwemwe Banda) to speak in early January to journalists at Zobue, in Mozambique, about the incoming generators, instead of holding it on Malawian soil only a few kilometers away? Of course, in line with expectations, the sentiments the trio shared at Zobue were those of a brighter future for Malawi’s people and economy. Why a press conference concerning an intimate issue to Malawi was best conducted on foreign land, yet so close to home, should raise concerns for us than lure us into seeing a committed government going the extra mile to ease the troubles of a wailing economy. It is easy for one to think crossing the border was good for the per diem earnings of accompanying officials, even when they could easily drive across to the Malawi side where a warm bed in Blantyre was 30 minutes away.
This website submits that it is callous to read much into the rhetoric splattered at Zobue. This is because, in the short-run, these colossal diesel generators will fill the pockets on the one side of the economy and dig a deeper hole in the other. And with, the 78 Mega-Watts (MW) the generators add, the long-term prospects seem bleak if the addition only accounts for approximately 10% of the electricity demand, estimated at 874 MW in 2020. These are details that the utterings to press at Zobue were shy of sharing with Malawians.
Perhaps there were dealings that Malawians were not supposed to be privy to? This website strongly believes that, after Cashgate and Maizegate, transparency has never been more needed. With the two aforementioned scandals having sealed many holes through which resources could filter to habitual looters, the need to have three senior officials travel across the Malawi-Mozambique border only to welcome stand-by generators reeks of fishy business. We need not be reminded that the generators, offered by two companies from the United States of America (APR Energy) and Scotland (Agrekko) in a rental contract, still comprise a procurement deal of about US$78 million (approx. MWK59 billion). Or, put in a way Malawi has grown to be familiar with, a potential source of pilferage of government money. If it were left to imagination, one would sensibly conjecture good reasons for a meeting with APR Energy, Agrekko or even Mozambican counterparts having been better off across the border than on a heavily-surveilled local setting. Nonetheless, if there was a good reason, the least Malawians could demand is that they be told its rationale.
In dotting the I’s and crossing the t’s in Malawi’s energy crisis, the upbeat utterances from Mr. Mutharika that followed through his speeches in political platforms, about how he perceives the bottlenecks to the country’s development have lied in energy supply, Mr. Mutharika lets some cats out of his own bag. He confirms the future dealings with Mozambique to fire coal-powered generation into the country’s national grid. His concept of a 1,400 Megawatt nation comes short from the electricity demand that stands at under 900 Megawatts up to 2020, if the information provided by his advisors at the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority is to be taken for professional veracity. Such gibberish has been the norm for far too long, although - for him and his cronies - it gathers enough political fodder as we move closer to 2019.
One inquires why all the expertise in the country, particularly that from our collaborating partners from abroad, would not caution government on such a terrible judgement. Worth noting is that there is indeed a wedge to the transaction that dwarfs any attempts for development advisors sitting in diplomatic missions and foreign development organizations to speak out. While their role, knowledge and expertise could benefit the country in materializing sober decisions, such a procurement deal is an economic gain to their respective countries. Its crippling potential to Malawi's national self-sufficiency becomes a secondary priority. To win this game, Malawi will need to teach itself how to roll the dice as the world will remain hesitant to teach her.
Yet this is not the last time our government will fail at a simple morality test. This website has repeatedly argued the missed opportunities in our country’s roadmap for electricity generation and distribution. The question of capacity does not feature among Malawi’s greatest challenges, as even locally-mined coal could be burned to generate enough power as the country seeks cleaner alternatives. After all, coal is very much part of our 50-year plan since 2003 when the current energy policy was put to effect. Now Malawians, many of whom hardly identify as electricity or energy pundits, have been forced out of their shell to start querying the legitimacy of the people employed to look after electricity supply in the country. The identified failures range from the lack of foresight regarding the perennial and habitual flow of the Shire River, which we are obsessed with as the major source of electricity generation; to the limited interest in exploring alternative solutions to growing electricity demand. For more of our local alternatives to hydro-electricity, read our article of 6 November 2016.
The set of questions that apply in this case may very well be the same that qualified in the investigation of Maizegate. The background to the procurement irregularities that affected the “apparent delay’ of the generators arriving home should cause much apprehension on taxpayers and country lovers to check any abnormal accounts, behaviors or even an uplifted confidence in political rhetoric. After Cashgate and Maizegate, we have every reason to demand better accountability.
This website is convinced beyond doubt that there was more at Zobue than meets the eye. The suspicion lies not in the dubiousness of the actual deal that necessitated the crossing of the Mwanza border to welcome a temporary solution, but rather in the reasons why it has not been easy for our government to be transparent about matters of national concern.
The foregoing factual logic regarding the rationale for the thought process that has gone into hiring a costly temporary remedy inspire the need for a civil inquisition. Firstly, the estimated surge in electricity tariffs by almost 25% matter-of-factly crowds out the poor from receiving energy that would enable their children study in the night, so their families can be uprooted from poverty someday. Secondly, among the few that are targeted to enjoy the new breath of power supply are production industries (see the locations the generators are installed at) that will, after paying a premium for their enjoyment of the connection, will undoubtedly transfer the burden of the hike to consumers through inflated prices of goods and services. The paradox of bumping up energy supply in Malawi in this way will not surprisingly injure the poor, whichever way one looks at it.
And it is impossible for a government that is supposed to protect them to avoid the impending economic catastrophe on the poor as, just for now, it is worth advocating for treating the symptoms of a potential political tsunami.