A few days ago, President Peter Mutharika promised residents of the city of Blantyre that his administration plans to build a stadium, a five-star hotel and a conference centre in Blantyre.
In Zomba he also promised to build a stadium and a shopping mall, among others.
Without doubt, this is a replication of the Bingu Stadium, President Hotel and the Bingu International Conference Centre inLilongwe.
Does Blantyre need this infrastructure? Probably. Completed in 1955 and initially named Rangeley (after William H. J. Rangeley, a civil servant), the 61-year old Kamuzu Stadium is perhaps in need of serious renovation, without which it could be a death trap. The government would do well to take action now, instead of waiting to react after things have gone wrong.
The President, however, did not promise the people of Blantyre that the government would renovate or face-lift the Kamuzu Stadium. He promised to build an entirely new one. Plus a hotel. Plus a conference centre.
Now, that’s where there is a problem, in my view.
Development cannot only focus on hotels and conference centres and stadiums. We need to think about other equally important infrastructure. What about railways? What about expanding the road network? What about building or renovating dams?
The Kamuzu Dam I and II are drying up. The Lilongwe Water Board is embarking on the rationing of water to ensure that there is no absolute crisis. Last year, rains in Lilongwe started on 28 December. If they do not start on 28 December this year, if they delay significantly after that date, the dams will run out of water, the way the Chimwankhunda Dam died in Blantyre.
And yet what our leadership is talking about are hotels, stadiums and conference centres. I am seeing no frantic effort to address the dire water situation that Lilongwe faces.
When I asked a senior government official about the Lilongwe water situation, he turned theoretical. “Why doesn’t the Lilongwe Water Board just pump water from Lake Malawi?” he said. It’s not as simple as that. Lake Malawi is a Rift Valley Lake, lying at 457m above sea level, while Lilongwe is at 1,050 m above sea level. Pumping the water over 100 km at a gradient of 600m would require the amount of electricity of about 50 megawatts, which Escom cannot afford to supply.
One would therefore expect the government to seriously talk about what to do to avert this water crisis, even as the water board takes steps to implement short-term solutions.
Ten years ago, the Board set out to construct a new dam on Diamphwi River. The project requires $300 million, but so far only $71 million has been raised.
Meanwhile, we borrowed $70 million from China to build a stadium in Lilongwe that we seem to have no idea what to use for. We also borrowed $65 million from China to build the President Hotel and the Bingu International Conference Centre inLilongwe. Add the two, that makes $135 million. What difference could it have made if the money had been invested in the Diamphwe Dam Project?
And so, now, President Peter Mutharika wants to repeat the same mistake of embarking on projects that add little value to national development. All he wants to do is to saddle us with loans.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s a positive thing that the President is being development-conscious. He wants to do something for our nation. It’s just that hotels and stadiums and conference centres do not strike me as a priority for our nation at present. They are not worth borrowing millions of dollars for.
This mbofyo-mbofyo approach will not work. Let us have a development plan and stick to it. The plan should define what our priorities are.
Some may be quick to say that the hotel fits into the greater picture of tourism, and, as usual, tourism is viewed as the “next biggest income earner after tobacco”, a song we have been singing in the last 16 years.
But when you talk to tourists and players in the tourism industry, they will tell you that what we need are good roads to tourist sites, well-trained tour guides and a banking sector that supports the use of all major international credit and debit cards.
I know it sounds nice when one hears the name Bingu Stadium, or Bingu International Conference Centre. So in Blantyrewe could have Peter Stadium and Peter Hotel or something. All that is good, but we need to define priorities first. We can’t just be constructing hotels and stadiums all the time.
As for the stadium, if the aim is to strengthen football, the investment our football needs right now is not stadiums. We need football academies and stronger, well-financed football teams playing in the Super League. Our national team, The Flames, is so pathetic that news these days is when it wins, because losses are the norm.
Imagine that Iceland, the team that dumped England out of the Euro a few days ago, was number 133 on Fifa rankings in 2012 when the Flames were ranked 107. Now Iceland is dumping England out of a major tournament and has moved 100 places up to 34, while Malawi is still stuck at 107, and cannot even beat Naming’omba United.
We don’t have good players and we lack good coaches. Investing in these would be, in my view, far better than building more stadiums and heaping loans on our heads.