Thursday, February 2, 2012

My One week in Malawi part II: a wasted 20 hours on petrol queues

That's not a traffic jam: it is a fuel queue!
I was in Malawi for a combined total of 144 hours. Taking away 48 hours for sleep time, I had a remainder of 96 productive hours. Of these, I spent roughly 20 of them  queuing for petrol - only to leave empty handed at the end of it all. That is 21% of my productive time wasted.
In the end, I had to make do with petrol bought on the Mozambican road-side in Dedza, sold at MK600/litre ($3.7 at the official exchange rate or $2.3 on the thriving parallel exchange market). After failing to buy extra petrol at any of the three filling stations that received deliveries while I was in Zomba, I was forced to purchase from the parallel market yet again at the cost of MK1,000 per litre ($6.21 at the official exchange rate or  $3.84 on the parallel market) - this translated to a whopping 163% above the official pump price of MK380/litre.
       I found it interesting that at almost the same time Nigerians were on the streets protesting the removal of petrol subsidies in their country,  Malawians appeared resigned to their fate. Many motorists would 'abandon' their vehicles at fuel stations hoping to be at the head of the queue in the event of a fuel delivery. Rumours of pending fuel delivery would always be met with hectic activity, cars being driven or pushed to join fuel queues that at times extended for more than 3 kilometers. And whenever a delivery was made, it was interesting to note that many people make it a point to know exactly how much fuel has been delivered at any particular fuel station.
       The greatest disappointment for me is how little blame the Mutharika government is getting for the fuel  shortages (in addition to the other myriad shortages such as forex, hospital drugs, and some basic commodities from shops). With the small Malawi middle class resorting to buying fuel on the parallel market and the majority of the blame being heaped on fuel attendants  and those who buy fuel in containers locally known as "zigubu,"  the majority of Malawians, it would appear, have taken heed of former Energy Minister, Grain Malunga's advice and gotten "used to the fuel shortages." I thus never got the sense that the Malawi government's abysmal handling of the fuel fuel shortages would result in anything resembling the Nigerian fuel-subsidy of demonstrations. This, in my view, is Malawi's biggest tragedy: the inability of people to put pressure on government officials whose job it is to ensure that these type of shortages should not occur.
While it is true that a number of people are profiteering from the fuel shortages, these are simply taking advantage of the scarcity of the commodity to make an extra buck. If the Malawi government worked on eliminating the cause of these shortages - whose roots  lie in the acute forex shortages - there would be no thriving parallel market for fuel products. Yet it is these, not the Mutharika administration, that are taking most of the heat over the fuel shortages.

In this political environment, there is almost zero chance of the type of demonstrations that recently led to the toppling of dictatorial regimes in the Arab world.

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