Africa

Malawi: Banda’s post-Mutharika honeymoon is well and truly over

By Simon Allison 17 October 2013

It’s been a rough week for Joyce Banda. Between an attempted murder, a multi-million dollar corruption scandal and the sacking en masse of her entire cabinet, Malawi’s president is discovering that running a country requires more than just being everything her wayward predecessor was not. By SIMON ALLISON.

From the moment she assumed office, President Joyce Banda has struggled to live up to the weight of expectations. Just a few months in to her tenure, a contributor to these very pages baptised her “St Joyce of Malawi”, a moniker that was as much an expression of optimistic anticipation as it was a recognition of her brief record. Eighteen months in, however, this optimism is looking like it might have been misplaced.

Make no mistake: Banda has been good for Malawi. Very good. When Bingu wa Mutharika died in April last year, so suddenly, Malawi was in poor shape. Mutharika’s initial promise and the growth driven by his far-sighted economic reforms degenerated into autocracy and corruption as the fruits of office exerted their inexorable pull on his better judgment. By the end, Malawi’s coffers were empty, fuel was in short supply, political intimidation was the norm and the country was diplomatically isolated, cut off from the foreign aid which is such a central part of the economy.

Step forward, Banda. As vice-president, she was Mutharika’s legal successor, but she had to fight hard to make it happen, defeating the hapless attempts of Mutharika’s allies to upset the constitutional order (they even pretended, for a while, that he wasn’t actually dead).

But Banda is nothing if not a fighter. Earlier in her career, when she fell out with Mutharika, she refused to give up the vice-presidency – even when the then-president threw her out of the ruling party and her former friends turned on her viciously. It was this tenaciousness that allowed her, ultimately, to take charge of Capital Hill.

Once there, the difference she made was immediate. Within weeks, popular discontent against the government had vanished; the aid flows resumed; and there was petrol in the tanks again. Diplomatically, she mended all the fences which Mutharika had broken, and took a few stands of her own – most memorably when she told Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir that she’d arrest him if he tried to come to Lilongwe, a principled position which forced the African Union to move its summit somewhere else.

St Joyce, it seemed, was everything that Mutharika wasn’t – and the world loved her for it. For a little while, anyway, until attention moved elsewhere and Malawi fell out of the headlines.

Until last week, when the country came back into focus with a vengeance. This time, however, the headlines weren’t so complimentary.

It started with a shooting. Paul Mphwiyo, the budget director in the ministry of finance, was driving into his home when he was ambushed by armed men. He survived, but it was a close run thing (Global Voices contributor Stever Sharra was in the hospital as Mphiyo stumbled in, choking and trailing blood. His dramatic account of the shooting and its aftermath is worth a read).

The shooting raised all kinds of questions: who did it, and why target Mphiyo? Rumours began to spread, suggesting that Mphiyo was involved in some kind of major corruption deal, but that the deal had soured; or perhaps that Mphiyo pulled the plug on a dodgy payment. Soon Banda’s office made a statement, warning that the identity of the shooters would be revealed shortly, fuelling speculation that the attempted hit on Mphiya was related to his work.

Suddenly, local media was full of corruption reports. Patrick Sithole, an official in the environment ministry, was arrested with 120 million kwacha ($350,000) in the boot of his car. Another civil servant was hiding $25,000 at his house. All in all, ten junior government officials were arrested. But the big one came from the heart of power itself: Frank Mwanza, an assistant accountant in the Office of the President, was arrested in connection with a 1 billion kwacha ($2.7 million) payment made to a dodgy company which hadn’t provided any services, or signed any government contracts.

At this point, the donors got involved. Malawi is heavily dependent on foreign aid, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars every year; one economist estimates that the amount of aid received annually is almost equal to the country’s entire economic output. Donors, however, are reluctant to give money to governments that are unable to control it. Banda’s administration is clearly struggling with this.

Norway cut aid immediately, while Germany and the European Union both issued stern warnings: get your house in order, or the money will stop.

This jolted Banda into action. With almost no warning, she fired her entire cabinet on Thursday last week. As statements of intent go, it was a good one, although also an admission of weakness – Banda clearly wasn’t immediately sure how far the rot had spread. And that it had spread at all is, ultimately, her responsibility as president.

By Wednesday this week, the cabinet was re-appointed en masse, with two notable exceptions: both the justice minister and the finance minister have been replaced, and they’re under investigation for corruption allegations. But questions remain: was Banda herself involved in the corruption? And if not, how did she let it get this far?

The question we’re asking is: has St Joyce done enough to keep her halo from slipping? It’s too early to say. The real test will be in May 2014, when Malawians go to the polls to either keep her in power or elect somebody new to the top job. All we can say for sure is that the president’s post-Mutharika honeymoon period is well and truly over, and that she will have to start making her own legacy – rather than just correcting the errors of Mutharika’s – before she convinces her countrymen to keep her on. DM

Read more:

  • How a shooting exposed the plunder of Malawi’s treasury on Global Voices

Photo: Malawi’s President Joyce Hilda Mtila Banda addresses the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, September 24, 2013. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

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