Malawi and British diplomat spat erupts

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Malawi expelled Britain's top diplomat to the southern African nation on Wednesday for criticising the president, sparking a tit-for-tat reprisal from London and threats of further action.

A diplomatic spat between the countries became full blown Wednesday when Malawi declared British high commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet persona non grata, leading Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague to order acting high commissioner of Malawi Flossie Gomile Chidyaonga to pack her bags.

"I am sorry to pass on the news that the Malawi Government has officially informed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office today (Tuesday) that Fergus (Cochrane-Dyet) is being declared persona non grata," British high commission vice-consul Lindsay McConaghy wrote in a memo, a copy of which was seen by AFP.

The row revolves around a leaked cable in which Cochrane-Dyet said Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika was becoming "ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism."

In the diplomatic cable, published by the weekly Nation earlier this month, the high commissioner also said that "the governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights."

McConaghy's memo said that "there will be serious consequences for Malawi" for its treatment of the high commissioner, the equivalent of ambassador in Commonwealth countries.

London retaliated within hours, with Hague saying that at his direction the Foreign Office had told Chidyaonga "that she and her dependants must leave the UK at the earliest opportunity."

"I have also asked my officials, working closely with their colleagues elsewhere in government, to review rapidly the full range of our wider relationship with Malawi," he added Hague.

Malawi officials refused to comment officially Wednesday on Cochrane-Dyet's expulsion.

But a senior official at the information ministry, who refused to be named, told AFP: "The truth is that the envoy has been expelled, but everyone is afraid to comment because the decision to expel the British envoy came from State House and not from the Office of the President and Cabinet."

He added: "Nobody wants to burn his or her fingers or to be seen contradicting the president. Everybody is afraid to speak."

The European Union slammed as "unjustified and inappropriate" Malawi's decision to expel Cochrane-Dyet.

"The European Union (EU) believes that the decision of the government of Malawi, which is apparently based on unconfirmed media reports and perceived criticisms of the government, is unjustified and inappropriate," it said in a statement sent to AFP.

Although his government had earlier threatened to expel Cochrane-Dyet, Mutharika had appeared to be trying to end the spat last week when he thanked Britain for its "steadfast" support of its former colony.

Malawi gained its independence from Britain in 1964 and London remains the biggest single donor to the impoverished nation, where half the 13 million citizens live below the poverty line and on less than a dollar a day.

But Britain slashed its aid by £3 million (3.4 million euros, $4.9 million) last year after expressing concern at the government's purchase of a $13.26 million jet for Mutharika.

© 2011 AFP

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