Malawi President Joyce Banda and her embattled number two, Khumbo Kachali, thought waving a 30 percent salary cut in the face of Malawians would make them believe government is serious in singing the austerity song.
Well, the two have got it wrong because Malawians have rejected the cuts as phony and meaningless show-off.
When Nation on Sunday asked Malawians in a nationwide survey how they view the measure, 77 percent rejected the cuts as insignificant and cosmetic.
The overwhelming argument of the respondents who took a grim view of the cuts is that the reduction is only a drop in the sea considering how much the President and her government is spending on travel and other areas they could do without.
This is a view shared by emeritus Chancellor College economics professor, Chinyamata Chipeta, who said cutting salaries is not enough.
“Government should look at the whole budget, not just the salaries. It needs to reduce the multiple and hefty allowances given to the Cabinet, senior civil servants and parastatal management,” said Chipeta.
President Banda earns K1.5 million (about $5 000) a month, while Kachali pockets K1 million (about $3 334). What this means is that the two have shed off a total of K750 000 (about $2 500) a month from their salaries, translating into K9 million in a year.
Viewed in isolation, the figures are quite decent. However, when other expenditure areas come into the picture, the story of the presidency’s commitment to austerity takes a different direction.
The need for Banda to take a hard look at other areas of expenditure control was borne out in an analysis in the Weekend Nation conducted recently. The analysis exposed the President’s voracious appetite for travel that undermines the rhetoric on cutting public expenditure.
In just four months of her presidency, Banda blew K160 million (about $534 000) on internal travel and the figure is going towards K360 million (about $1 200) by December’s end if the pattern persists.
The analysis exposed huge figures being blown on allowances, way more than the 30 percent cut being touted.
For example, when ministers and their deputies travel outside the Central Region for a one-day presidential function, they normally draw subsistence allowances for two days as they travel to that place a day earlier or return the following day.
The same applies to body guards, personal assistants and drivers travelling with them.
For example, it cost taxpayers about K250 000 (about $834) for a minister to escort Banda to the Ngonis’ Umthetho annual celebrations in Mzimba on August 11. That sum included allowances for drivers, bodyguards and assistants.
At some point, the ministers’ Mercedes Benz and Toyota Prado vehicles would consume between K60 000 (about $200) and K80 000 (about $267) fuel to and from places such as Mzuzu, Blantyre, Karonga and Zomba. This fuel includes local running costs.
When all 31 Cabinet ministers and their deputies attend functions in such places, excluding Minister of Health Khumbo Kachali who is the Vice-President and has a separate budget for his entourage, the ministers would spend roughly K9 million (about $300 000) to escort Banda, the calculations show.
Overall, in Banda’s 18 trips outside Lilongwe, Cabinet ministers may have so far drawn about K160 million from the public purse just to escort the President.
Slot the 30 percent salary cuts into this milieu, it explains why Malawians interviewed in the Nation on Sunday survey are distinctly unimpressed by Banda’s commitment to the sacrifices she has been asking Malawians to make during the current hard slog that life has become for her compatriots.
Friday Jumbe, who served as minister of finance in the Bakili Muluzi regime, agrees with the survey results and urged government to go beyond austerity.
“The government needs to have a combined approach to this: Austerity should be on one side and a dose of growth on the other.
“On austerity, I think the 30-percent salary reduction is insignificant. Austerity should be at all levels of government, all the way to subvented government departments. The current budget is too big for Malawi,” said Jumbe, who is also United Democratic Front (UDF) acting president.
Chipeta urged Malawi to learn to live within its means since depending on donors who themselves are facing economic problems is not sustainable.
Malawi Government spokesperson Moses Kunkuyu, Minister of Finance Dr Ken Lipenga and presidential press officer Steve Nhlane were unavailable to respond to the survey results.
But Kachali and her boss have vehemently defended themselves against the accusation that they are travelling excessively, arguing that this is necessary as Malawi seeks the magic wand during the recovery period.