Perhaps that is why this past week, there has been a scarcity, not of fuel but of news about fuel in newspapers. This is because service stations have been brimming with fuel. And so as if in a dream, you would drive into a filling station, refill and drive away within five minutes. At least that has been the situation in many filling stations in the country from early this week.
Thanks to the $200 million loan that government obtained from the Government of the Republic of India and the strict enforcement of the ban on jerry cans and drums.
One can only hope this is the end of the nightmarish experience that has become the trademark of driving in Malawi, characterized by spending nights or long hours at filling stations to refill.
Now I am not joking. I know of three women (my wife's friends) who could not stand the heat of queuing for any number of hours just to fill up their cars. Until last week, they found it more convenient to leave their fuel-less cars at home and jump on public transport to work. I can't blame them.
I have no problem with borrowing. Especially this kind of borrowing where you borrow short-term hoping that you will find a long term solution to the problem in the days to come.
But I have a serious problem when you borrow to fill up your belly tonight only to discover the next day you have to borrow again.
In other words, there is a big problem with living hand-to-mouth, which is what the government of a certain sovereign state is doing—living hand to mouth due to the many economic problems it is going through.
In July last year, government borrowed $100 million from the PTA Bank for fuel. With the country's monthly fuel consumption of $33 million, that money meant Malawi would have enough fuel for three months—up to September. True to everybody's fears, at the end of those three months, the country was dry again. During the three months of uninterrupted fuel supply, government went to sleep. It only woke up when the Saudi Arabian liquid had all but been used up in the country. Borrowing short term, thinking short term and planning short term! This is the jinx Malawi has to break in order to get out of its self-inflicted economic malaise. We must learn to borrow short term but think and plan long term.
Unfortunately this is a far cry where there is intellectual atrophy at the highest level of leadership. It is not tenable in a country of 13 million people where one and one person only thinks he or she has a monopoly over wisdom.
Government has borrowed this $200 million to bring fuel into the country for six months, utmost. But what is there beyond the six months?
Government has been shamelessly implacable on the cause of the fuel shortage in the country. It has been rudely parroting a statement to the effect that the country's fuel ills are due to the lack of fuel reserves. Give Malawians a break. This is the most ridiculous scapegoat one can ever give for a problem like this one.
What more is this government looking for better than the fuel reserves in Chilumba, Lilongwe, Mchinji and Blantyre? All that this government needed to do when it took over the reins of power in 2004 is to continue maintaining these facilities. That way they would not have degenerated into the derelict state some of them are now.
But for argument's sake, government can build new reserves. Indeed it can rehabilitate and maybe expand the existing ones. But if it does not placate the root cause of the problem—forex—the reserves will be white elephants, like the much-touted Nsanje Port, glorified as the World Inland Port.
Under normal circumstances, the $300 million government has borrowed so far to improve the fuel supply situation in the country should not have been giving anyone heart palpitations. But all Malawians who like to know the truth have reason to be afraid, very afraid. I, for one, have reason to believe that government is indirectly borrowing (billions of kwacha for fuel which it is paid in local currency) to fill up gaps in its punitive zero-deficit budget.
Why should government repay this $300 million in five or 10 years' time when it is getting the kwacha equivalent from local fuel companies as soon as the fuel jets into the country?
Someone ask Puma, Total, Engen, Caltex et cetera if they have not been paying government for the fuel it (government) has been brokering for them. Now ask government if it has started repaying the $100 million it borrowed from the PTA Bank to say nothing of the $200 million.
If I were government I would have been using this money from local fuel companies to service domestic debt which runs in several billions of kwacha. The Bible says "Faith (or fear) comes by hearing". I hope you have heard, although to be or not to be afraid is a matter of choice.
Let me leave you with Aubrey Mchulu's comments (Namisa Social Network, January 27, 2012) on the way out, echoed by many commentators:
"The better evil is to get on the IMF programme as things stand now because that will unlock forex from general budgetary support. People pay cash for fuel in MK but there are no dollars to purchase the fuel from sources. So this vicious circle of borrowing will continue and, in the long run it will be our children's children paying through the nose.
"If we are not careful today, we'll have mortgaged the country to Shylocks."