I recently spent a day at the Bingu International Conference Centre in Lilongwe, named after the late President Bingu wa Mutharika. I was there for the closing ‘symposium’ of the Malawi-German Programme for the Promotion of Democratic Decentralisation. The Germans have spent 18 years bank-rolling decentralisation in the country and are now phasing out, with the overall feeling that they got little for their investment. But this post isn’t about them.
This post is about the centre itself, which occupies the vast grounds of Umodzi Park, right next to the new Parliament building. It was built, along with the country’s first five star hotel and a residential area known as the Presidential Villas, with – you guessed it – Chinese money. Following Malawi’s abandonment of links with Taiwan in 2007 (after 41 years), the country has enjoyed a surge in Chinese investment in the country, to the extent that many up-scale restaurants have three menus: international; Indian (to cater to the resident Indian business class); and, now, Chinese. (Some disagreement on the exact size of Chinese investment into the country however exists, as evidence by this 2009 US Embassy cable.)
The story of the Bingu Centre is predictably complex. It was built by the Shanghai Construction Company, with over $90 million borrowed by Malawi from the Export-Import Bank of China. Since completion two years ago, the centre, and in particular its on-site hotel, has only been used a handful of times; its failure to be ready for the 2013 SADC meetings drew particular criticism. Earlier this year, after extensive financial troubles and government interference in the bidding process for operators, the centre was finally leased to South African company Peermont Global Limited for a period of ten years.
It seems one of the reasons for the Centre’s long under-use is political: following the death of Mutharika two years ago, Joyce Banda, a former deputy President but who started her own party before his death and inherited the presidency when Mutharika passed, seems to have had limited interest in getting the place up and running. This may be about to change however: the May 2014 elections brought the late president’s elderly brother Peter into power, and it is therefore expected that the centre will be fully operationalised in the near future. That’s not a bad thing in a city starved for conference spaces, but with already loose floor tiles it remains to be seen whether the $90 million centre was a good investment.