Britain and Malawi have swapped diplomatic expulsions, as official relations between the two countries reached a historic low.
The Malawian government ordered British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet to leave the country over criticisms leveled at President Bingu wa Mutharika. Britain responded by expelling Malawi's acting Ambassador Flossie Gomile Chidyaonga.
Foreign Secretary William Hague warned that the UK, which says it currently gives Malawi £93m in aid each year, would "review rapidly the full range of our wider relationship with Malawi."
Cochrane-Dyet had written a diplomatic cable to foreign secretary William Hague detailing increased government repression and rising tensions between Mutharika and civil society groups. The cable was leaked in the Weekend Nation newspaper and offers a neat summary of troubling developments. Malawi had gone largely unmentioned in the tranche of American diplomatic cables released late last year, but is now caught up in its own homegrown "cable-gate".
The cable describes Mutharika as "ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism," and summarises the erosion of "media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights" in recent months.
It also claims that several foreign ambassadors have been warned by high-ranking government officials to "stop supporting civil society to destabilise the government". It said there had been reports of raids against rights activists who "seem genuinely afraid".
"There are unsubstantiated rumours that the ruling party is forming a youth wing modeled on the Young Pioneers used as a tool of repression during the country's three-decade dictatorship", said the cable.
Malawi's opposition parties were critical of the decision to expel Cochrane-Dyet, saying it could jeopardise Malawi's relationship with the UK, one of the country's biggest donors of budgetary support.
Nancy Tembo, of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) was quoted describing the move "suicidal" and "self-defeating".
"As a party, we are completely shocked by the government's reaction", said Tembo. "There is nothing new about what the envoy said. In fact, these are the same issues that the opposition and civil society have been raising for quite some time now."
Mutharika has cracked down on dissidents in an attempt to avoid mass-activism of the kind witnessed across the Arab world. The organisers of a protest against a long-running fuel shortage were arrested in February, a
month after the President had outlawed press articles deemed "contrary to the public interest".
Malawi's homophobic laws were extended to include lesbians in the same raft of legislation, and among numerous incidents involving threats against human rights
activists, there was a report of men armed with pangas entering the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation and menacing staff.
As has often been the case throughout the country's history, the University of Malawi has become something of a flashpoint for political repression. Earlier in the year, the political scientist Blessings Chinsinga was called before the Inspector General of Malawi's police force and questioned over a comparison he had apparently made between the situations in Tunisia and Egypt before the revolutions in those countries, and the petrol crisis in Malawi.
The lecturers went on strike in defence of academic freedom, and early in April both Chancellor College and the Polytechnic were closed indefinitely.