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A protester throws back a tear gas canister fired by police during an anti-government demonstration in Lilongwe, Malawi, on July 20, 2011. (AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
A protester throws back a tear gas canister fired by police during an anti-government demonstration in Lilongwe, Malawi, on July 20, 2011. (AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Struggling economy behind Malawians' rage Add to ...

If the billboards adorning its capital are anything to go by, Malawi is on the up and up, with President and self-proclaimed economist-in-chief Bingu wa Mutharika "propelling Malawi into the future."

The petrol queues snaking hundreds of yards through its dusty boulevards give a very different - and far more realistic - view of the impoverished southern African nation's prospects.

They also help explain this week's unprecedented wave of political unrest in which police and protesters fought running street battles in four cities, leaving 18 people dead in a country that bills itself the "Warm Heart of Africa."

Malawi's official economic growth statistics have been stellar for the last six years, but there is little to show for it on the ground, and the country's 13 million people are fed up with being told how lucky they are.

"It's very difficult to say to your children that things are going well when they are going to sleep at night hungry, and going to school in the morning without any shoes," said William Sanudi, a 37-year-old curio-seller near Lilongwe's dilapidated central Post Office.

"The economy right now is very bad."

The debris left by Wednesday and Thursday's rioting has quickly been cleared up, but the seething anger at Mr. Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, and his cabinet of degree-laden technocrats, shows no signs of disappearing.

For some, 2014 elections cannot come soon enough.

"2014 is too far for him, or he'll destroy the country," said Colby Mkupa, a civil servant sweating it out for three hours in a petrol queue. "This bunch of 'doctors' - they've completely failed."

Such sentiment is hard to square with the official statistics about Malawi's $5-billion (U.S.) economy, even those endorsed by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

For most of the years since Mr. Mutharika came to power in 2004, it has been one of the world's fastest-growing economies, with annual expansion near 10 per cent, due mainly to a donor-funded fertilizer subsidy scheme that boosted maize harvests.

But even during the boom years, when sales of tobacco, its main export, were holding up, Malawi faced a perennial shortage of foreign exchange, putting strain on its currency, the kwacha, which is formally pegged at 150 to the dollar.

That has intensified this year as Mr. Mutharika has picked a fight with donors that have traditionally bankrolled 40 per cent of the government's budget.

First in the firing line has been Britain, Malawi's former colonial master and its biggest benefactor, whose ambassador was kicked out over a leaked diplomatic cable that referred to Mr. Mutharika as "autocratic and intolerant of criticism."

Britain responded by expelling Malawi's representative to London and suspending aid worth $550-million over the next four years, a move that pushed the black-market kwacha rate out to 190 in anticipation of a more severe foreign exchange crunch.

As the dust settles from this week's crackdown, it is hard not to see further declines in the currency - and a concomitant rise in the cost of imported goods such as clothes, food and fuel - as condemnation of the police action from Europe and Washington translates into smaller aid flows.

There may even be a question mark over a $350-million U.S. government project to overhaul the decrepit power grid.

Unfortunately for most Malawians, Mr. Mutharika appears fixated on official growth statistics as proof of his prowess, and dismisses cries of autocracy by pointing out that his jails contain no political prisoners.

Meanwhile, he is grooming his younger brother and education minister, Peter, as a successor, even though the latter is renowned for an even more patronizing style than his sibling.

"If his older brother is professorial, arrogant and patrician, Peter is professorial, arrogant and patrician times two," one foreign resident of Lilongwe said.

The civil society and union leaders who co-ordinated this week's protests have set Aug. 16 as a deadline for Mr. Mutharika to sit down and discuss the problems in a country that is also blighted with one of the region's worst HIV/AIDS rates.

But Mr. Mutharika appears in no mood to give ground.

"I'm going to smoke you out if you go back to the streets," he said at a televised police officer graduation on Friday.

The mood on the street is equally unforgiving, suggesting further confrontation is almost inevitable in a country that prides itself on its peace-loving populace.

"This week just gave them a lesson," said Sanudi, the curio-seller. "August 17 - people are waiting for that day. They will go back on the streets and things will get worse. People want to fight for truth and democracy."

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