Mutharika, Banda, And The Task Of Building A New Malawi

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By ‘Fisayo Soyombo

 

“From 2004 when he acceded the presidency of the country up till 2010, Malawi was rated one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, averaging 7 per cent expansion each year, and experiencing watershed metamorphosis from its status as a country on the cusp of famine to one that began exporting food. It also earned a pleasant reputation as one of the safest countries in the world with its low crime rate.

Within the same period, its GDP grew steadily; and the population of citizens living under the poverty line decreased from 54 per cent in 1990 to 40 per cent in 2006, while the ultra-poor population decreased from 24 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2007. By his death in April 2012, the figures were on a fast-moving slide.”

 

 

VENTURES AFRICA — Joyce Banda is currently probably the wrongest president on whom to dissipate envy, which is an odious emotion, anyway. Neither was she one to be envied in the past!

 

Born in 1950 as Joyce Hilda Ntila, she first hit international prominence in 2009 when she was elected the first female vice-president of Malawi — a position she held, largely, in a sadly ceremonial capacity, owing to party-related wrangling with the president.

 

On 7th April 2012, she ascended the presidency of a steeply impoverished Malawi with the additional baggage of exacerbating fuel shortages and snowballing unemployment levels, following the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika days earlier. So far, her story has trodden the rare grace-grass-grace trajectory.

 

Bingu wa Mutharika himself was no stranger to such rise and fall tales, only that he got no second chance after his early-April fall, which proved to be eternal. Mutharika — despite finishing last in his first presidential race in 1999 — was first elected president on May 24, 2004 (ahead of John Tembo and Gwanda Chakuamba), riding on the back of his nominator, Bakili Muluzi, the outgoing president.

 

Brightson Webster Ryson Thom (his original name before a switch in the 60s) again stood for election in 2009, winning by a landslide 66.7 per cent of total votes cast. The victory came on the strength of his heart-warming first-term performance, particularly his Agricultural Input Subsidy Programme, which benefited an estimated 1, 700, 000 poor Malawian farmers in addition to about-facing the country’s food production and export fortunes.

 

By that time, an unmistakable arrogance was already setting in. He styled himself Malawi’s ‘Economist-in-Chief’ and recklessly set on a collision course with foreign donors with whose money he funded the agric programme, following the protests that greeted his attempted tenure elongation in 2011. Britain, particularly, frowned at the killing of hordes of defenceless protesters by live ammunition-wielding policemen, whom he had deployed.

 

What had been a sensational love affair finally crumbled with the leakage of a diplomatic cable that accused him of “autocracy and intolerance for criticism.” He brashly expelled the British envoy to his country. Expectedly, he was slapped with a retaliatory measure. But additionally, aids worth $550 million dollars were frozen.

 

Months later in a solidarity move, the United States abandoned a $350 million refurbishment of Malawi’s rundown power grid. And thus began the free grace-grass fall of Mutharika, whose death could have been averted had simple, life-saving medicines been available or had the Lilongwe Hospital had electricity supply — two scenarios that would never have occurred while his country was the darling of donor countries.

 

The remnant of the ruin that trailed the era is what Mrs. Banda has inherited: a country that has automatically lost 40 per cent (which the aids constitute) of its budget and is grappling with the agonising plummet of international demand for tobacco, which accounts for 60 (sometimes 80) per cent of its earnings. Such a devastating mathematical combination, Banda herself must be secretly admitting.

 

The consequence is a state gripped by acute power and fuel shortages; an over-valued currency, the Kwacha, set at 165 to the dollar but trading at nearly double the amount on the black market; rampant inflation of consumer goods, resulting, for example, in the inflation of a commodity as common as sugar; and large-scale dilapidation of social infrastructures.

 

Typical of freshly anointed presidents, Joyce Banda has immediately swung to action, beginning with the sack of Mutharika’s allies, Information Minister, Patricia Kaliati, and Inspector General of Police, Peter Mukhito, in an apparent move to soften grounds for her total control over the state. But the country’s estranged donors will read a deeper, clearer meaning to the sack of Mukhito, who is believed to have supervised the killing of 20 protesting defenceless civilians in 2011. More importantly, she has already spoken to international donors over the restoration of aid packages worth $1 billion.

 

She is instilling a new wave of belief in Malawians. “I want all of us to move into the future with hope and a spirit of unity,” she preached at a recent news conference. Finance Minister, Ken Lipenga shared her optimism, saying she expected the resumption of aid to “happen soon.” So, generally, hope is the pervading emotion in the landlocked country.

 

But with the benefit of hindsight, The Nation, one of Malawi’s major independent newspapers is advocating “tempered” optimism, citing past history of once-promising leaders who were brought to ruin by arrogance and corruption. “After the false dawns of the last regimes, Malawians will be forgiven for reserving their judgement until much later,” it wrote in its Sunday editorial.

 

Naturally, the most fitting example of that description is the late Mutharika. From 2004 when he acceded the presidency of the country up till 2010, Malawi was rated one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, averaging 7 per cent expansion each year, and experiencing watershed metamorphosis from its status as a country on the cusp of famine to one that began exporting food. It also earned a pleasant reputation as one of the safest countries in the world with its low crime rate.

 

Within the same period, its GDP grew steadily; and the population of citizens living under the poverty line decreased from 54 per cent in 1990 to 40 per cent in 2006, while the ultra-poor population decreased from 24 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2007. By his death in April 2012, the figures were on a fast-moving slide.

 

But Joyce Banda will have none of Mutharika’s possible excuses as she, unlike him, has not had an indulgent rise to power. She was booted out of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (despite being the party’s VP; alongside second VP, Khumbo Kachali) in 2010 after disagreeing with the president’s nomination of his brother, Peter Mutharika, as his successor. Having escaped being further expelled as the country’s VP by the skin of her teeth, she tenaciously clung to power, albeit only its ceremonial form was available. And even after Mutharika’s death, she only narrowly survived underground shenanigans that sought to truncate her swearing-in as substantive president, on grounds of having formed a party separate from the DPP on which platform she came to power in the first place.

 

So, not only does Banda owe Malawians a new lease of life, she owes herself the fulfilment of an opportunity to prove to the citizens what loss her ostracism from governance these past two years has been. Not the most enviable of countries to preside over at the moment, Banda most lethal weapon of achieving success will be her remembrance of her chequered but still-lucky political history. Over to the Malawian press!

 

 

 

 

Image via Kikensnodjhelp