The term Minnow is an English noun used to denote a small freshwater Eurasian fish of the carp family, which typically forms large shoals. The term has been used (among other definitions) to denote something that is small or insignificant, be it a person or an organization.
And I’m using it as the subject of this article because last week, the Hindustan Times quoted international affairs expert Dr Kanti Bajpai, who is professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School in Singapore, as saying India’s Narendra Modi’s decision not to make an address to the United Nations General Assembly at the 70th session may be interpreted as siding with an Indian school of foreign policy that doesn’t ‘..want to be in the company of the international minnows too long’
The writer of the article quotes Modi to have said of such international gatherings like the UN General Assembly, that there are “Lots of small countries with their small problems.”
It is therefore somewhat surprising, amusing let alone ironic when you read that some countries are taking large entourages to the very same gatherings at which they are somewhat frowned upon by delegates of much larger countries.
Uhuru Kenyatta travelled with 40 people, Malawi’s Peter Mutharika took an entourage said to have been around 110 members, whereas the Prime minister of Bangladesh had an entourage of 227 members!
Before he left, Peter Mutharika gave a speech which some commentators claim was effectively an SOS over Malawi’s problems. So why then take such a large entourage when he claims that Malawi is in trouble? In particular, the Government of Malawi recently conducted a Food Security assessment for the 2015 / 2016 period, which concluded that
a total of 2,833,212 people will not be able to meet their annual food requirementt during the 2015/16 consumption period. This represents 17 per cent of the country’s total population.
It went on to state that the Government needed US$146.378 million to procure 124 thousand metric tons of maize to prevent a food shortage crisis which could quickly develop into a humanitarian crisis.
If Malawi had done some deals with investors and the economy was recovering, why would anyone sensible question the wisdom of going to the UN with a whole horde of people?
If Mutharika was taking the top 100 businessmen from across the country, irrespective of party affiliation (as most western leaders do when they travel to say Saudi Arabia, India or China) to scout for opportunities, collaborations or business or to attend strategic meetings, why would anyone sensible question it?
The problem is Malawi is currently free-falling, Oil and gas licensing were suspended, the floods devastated land and crops, and will affect harvest, donors have pulled out of budgetary support and are refusing to resume, even the IMF has closed the taps, and you have a president taking loads of people to New York???
Between the president’s departure last week and today, we’ve learned that:-
- The government of Malawi will be spending ~ K144million Kwacha on the airfares of Mutharika’s entourage.
- That K238 million is being spent on accommodation alone for 111 people. That makes a total of K352 million ($636,000) of taxpayer’s money being spent on Accommodation and airfares, without accounting for allowances, which are not coming in cheap.
- That the president has hired a private jet – a Bombardier Global Express at a cost of US$4 million for the duration of th trip.
- Speculation on social networks online is that the President’s step son is part of the entourage, as well as a chief and a PE teacher. We do not know if this is true, or why they went? How will their inclusion benefit the country or indeed what will they add to the trip?? Surely Malawians must be told why were they selected and what they will add to the trip?
- Also part of the entourage is a lady who accompanied Mutharika only because the first lady is on the trip.
- From one ministry 3 Directors went to New York, each with an allowance upwards of K9 million (US$16,000, and that’s besides the other staff members accompanying them)
- Peter Mutharika and Ben Phiri are travelling separately so that they shouldn’t be seen in the same place, to give the false impression that Ben Phiri is not working for the government even when in reality he still is working for Mutharika.
- There are some who claim the UN is paying for the trip, but our sources including some people close to government officials dispute this. Malawi is going to pay for their own bill, and any news that the UN is footing the bill is designed to mislead. If donors are paying why haven’t they explicitly declared so, seeing the situation in the country?
- Last year, someone who went to the 69th Session of UN with the president blurted out in a drunken stupor,that he had been paid $10,500 for the days he was in New York. There is no reason to suspect that the officials accompanying Mutharika are being paid less this time around. Or is there?
Last year, Mutharika returned from a trip to the US and Malawians were told that he had received promises (or was it signed agreements) of investment totalling around US$600 million from some investors. While I can’t recall how many people he took along with him for that trip, how many of those investment promises he received have since materialised into real investment or real tangible projects?
I think there is need for more accountability and responsibility on the part of the presidency. Minimally, I think numbers of officials going to the UN should be capped at a figure such as 13, and allowances of officials of African government should be capped at modest sums. In particular, why should the head of state of a poor country sleep in Waldorf Astoria in New York , paying over $10,000 or is it $15,000 a night when millions of his country’s citizen are struggling with daily life, and live on less than $3 a day? I think just as a matter of concern for other humans, for other people, just out of what in Malawi we call umunthu, expenses for all officials including the president should be capped at $500 a night. You can’t be that insensitive when people, real people in your country are suffering. It can never be right, and such selfishness is the cause of all human problems. I’ve seen this attitude again and again amongst the ruling class (even in Britain). There are some people who assume that just because they are doing well financially, everyone should be doing relatively okay. This is never the case.
So, all that these expensive trips do is give credibility to critics who dismiss them as self-enrichment schemes, which on some level they are.
When will Malawians leaders learn to be accountable? With all the poverty our country faces, should we really be throwing money around like this?
I think we should legislate to have laws that can remove representatives if they are unable to meet the expectations of their constituencies, or if they abuse their power. I think that is the way forward to counter corruption and self-enrichment.
Also, when the largest economy in Africa, Nigeria, took around 30 people (according to NAIJ.COM the number is 22) to the UN, does it really make sense for tiny Malawi, one of the poorest countries in Sub Saharan Africa, to be taking entire clans, complete with chiefs to New York?
For those of you who say the amount Peter Mutharika will be spending is minimal, lets not forget that there are many American tech giants which began with capital of less than $4 million let alone $635,000. Facebook for example, a company now worth billions of dollars, once received $500,000 in seed funding from Peter Thiel , the PayPal Co-founder, in 2004, for a 10% stake. My point, the money Mutharika is wasting can be better invested into ventures that could greatly benefit the country in the short to medium term; it can be invested into young people, instead of blowing it on luxury and unnecessary spending at the expense of an already burdened tax payer.
One final thing … 🙂 the word minion. A minion, for those who do not know, is defined as a follower or underling of a powerful person, especially a servile or unimportant one. Where in Narendra Modi’s reality that definition places Mutharika’s 110 underlings is anybody’s guess.