Allegations of a coup plot sour diplomatic ties

The US embassy has denied involvement in an alleged plot to overthrow the president, Peter Mutharika.

Analysis

Media reports that the US ambassador to Malawi, Virginia Palmer, met with the leader of the opposition, Lazarus Chakwera, to plot a coup have been dismissed by her office as “mere fabrications”. Mr Chakwera, of the Malawi Congress Party, has also denied that such plans to overthrow the government exist, and other opposition figures claim that the story was orchestrated by the state machinery in an attempt to raise doubts over rival parties’ commitment to democracy. The parliamentary leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party has nevertheless confirmed that the government is investigating the allegations.

Should the investigation progress, there is a risk that it will stoke domestic political tensions. Mr Mutharika was himself accused of an attempted coup in 2012 against the then president, Joyce Banda, and, although no one was ever charged, the arrest of him and ten others prompted rioting in Blantyre, the commercial capital. An investigation into the alleged involvement of foreign officials also threatens to spark international tensions. Indeed, there is precedent for domestic party politics souring diplomatic relations; in 2011 the then president, Bingu wa Mutharika, expelled the British commissioner, Fergus Cochrane‑Dyet, following the latter’s claims that the government was intolerant of the opposition.

The spat in 2011 prompted the UK to withhold some £19m (US$27.6) in aid to Malawi and, should diplomatic ties deteriorate, the risk of further aid suspensions cannot be ruled out. Ties with donors are already fragile, following the revelation of a high-level corruption scandal in 2013. According to local media reports, the government issued a new directive in early February restricting the access that diplomats and heads of international organisations can have to the president; the motives behind this are unclear, although it is likely to serve to add further strain to Malawi’s relations with the international community.

Impact on the forecast

Since they lack the support base (in parliament, the military and among voters) to be successful, it seems unlikely that the opposition will mount any serious attempt to overthrow the government in the near term. Nevertheless, we maintain our view that lively party politics will distract from policymaking. We also continue to expect that relations with donors will remain strained and may revise our forecast of a gradual recovery to aid inflows if relations deteriorate

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