Former Malawi president Joyce Banda discusses her eight-month absence from the country in an exclusive interview with Mail&Guardian of South Africa.
When did you leave Malawi and what have you been doing since then?
The elections were in May. After President [Peter]Mutharika was declared the winner I conceded defeat and I made a statement to the nation. The best thing you can do is to allow peace to prevail because, in most countries where blood has been shed after elections, post-election conflicts start with an incumbent or competitor who refuses to accept defeat. For me there was life after State House. So I stepped on to the global stage, to show that I accepted [Mutharika] as my president, to run Malawi without my interference. I am an international public speaker, so I went back to my speaking engagements.
I also had to look at the Joyce Banda Foundation, which is not only in Malawi. I had to sit down again with my team and look at ways of growing it. So on the margins of the United Nations assembly last year in New York, we launched the Joyce Banda Foundation International Africa Initiative.
Why stay outside the country for so long?
As a free Malawian citizen I can spend any amount of time anywhere. In the past, presidents have left office and spent many months outside the country. [Former] president Bakili Muluzi stayed for a long period in the United Kingdom with his family.
Do you feel comfortable with continuing to draw a government salary as a former president when you are living abroad?
When I left, I hadn’t started receiving the salary. But I accept that it takes a long time for logistics to be put in place for us to enter the systems again. I’ve gathered that it’s not only me, but it really doesn’t matter. When government is ready it will start.
The main suspect in Cashgate, Oswald Lutepo, said on radio that you are connected to the scandal. Your reaction?
Mr Lutepo was only six months in our party when the Cashgate scandal was uncovered; he was a member of other parties before. When it was clear that he was the main suspect, my government instituted an international search and extradited him from China. The statement you’re talking about has been changed four times. In fact, I have evidence that he was forced to implicate me, or his wife [would] be arrested.
Following his statement, there was an announcement by government spokesperson [Kondwani] Nakhumwa that they had CCTV footage showing me and Lutepo conniving to swindle government. I am informed that the Anti-Corruption Bureau has made public requests four times to Nakhumwa to bring forth that footage. He has not and will not because it doesn’t exist.
I established a commission of inquiry to find out how Bingu wa Mutharika died in State House but there was no way we could see this because the CCTV camera in the State House wasn’t working and I refused to repair it because it would cost K100-million (R3-million). For the two years I was in State House we didn’t have working CCTV. So, I don’t know where this footage came from.
Why, then, are there attempts to implicate you in Cashgate?
It’s something I expected when I started the fight against the looting of public money. My advisers warned me: “You will be fighting powerful people and they won’t just stand there, they’ll smear you” and bring me down.
I don’t need to tell you the things I’ve been called and what they’ve written about me in panic. It’s part of the deal of being a leader who truly stands for the people.
I asked the British government to help me conduct a forensic audit and submitted the auditors’ report to parliament [which revealed that K13-billion (R390-million) was stolen in three months during her administration]. I also conducted an audit into the last three years of Bingu Mutharika’s term, which revealed K92-billion (R2.76-billion) was stolen then. I’m not worried about being smeared. Malawians are very intelligent people; they can see through whatever is going on and they know the truth. They know that I served them well.
Why did you lose the elections?
I can only direct you to an official report by the Malawi Human Rights Commission that tells what happened around the elections. I made my own decision to move on, and now Malawi has another president, who must be the president for five years. I will never challenge that.
Finance Bank boss Rajan Mahtani was given a licence to reopen his bank in Malawi (which was closed because of alleged money-laundering). He promised your government money to facilitate the issuing of the licence. Did Mahtani donate money to your party?
The Mail & Guardian headline was loud and clear: I was “laughing all the way to the bank”, insinuating that I received money. A serving president receives many investors; it’s up to you to direct them to the right organisation. If somebody wants to make salt, you direct them to the trade and industry ministry, even introduce them to the minister, because your successes will be based on the money coming into the country through investment.
When Mahtani came back to Malawi, I told him the regulator is the Reserve Bank – they do a due diligence and decide whether to have him back. During the whole process there is no way anybody can be foolish enough to invest money before they know they are going to get a licence.
Your party was very well resourced during the elections. Where did the funds come from?
I was one of … two women presidents on the continent and the first in the SADC region. A lot of people were interested [in me] … staying in office – particularly women. It was not a lot of money; anybody could give me $3 000 or $5 000. During the elections, most of those supporting me were in the country.
What were your successes as Malawi’s president?
When I came in, there was no fuel even for a day. To go to Mutharika’s funeral I depended on fuel donated by Zambia’s late president Michael Sata. When I left, there was fuel for 15 days and fuel tanks were under construction to store fuel for two months.
My government also drew up a clear economic recovery plan focusing on infrastructure, energy, mining, tourism and agricultural development. When I came in, two million people had no food; when I left, we had a harvest of three million tonnes. When I came in, economic growth was 1.8%; when I left it was 6.5% …
Also, when I came in, our press index was at position 145, meaning there was no freedom of speech. People like you could not speak, reporters were being beaten up and a minister could ban a newspaper if he didn’t like it. When I left, we had repealed those laws and our index position was 79.
More importantly, during the Cashgate investigations, I set up a committee of Cabinet ministers that worked day and night briefing the nation and drawing up a plan to continue the fight against corruption.
What is your message to Malawians who are eagerly expecting your return?
All presidents and vice-presidents can come in and out of the country, so I don’t know how Malawians are eagerly waiting for a former president. When I return to Malawi I may interact with my party officials, nothing else.
My message is I know Malawians are passing through difficult times, but I know why. When you come into office in a country as poor as Malawi, you must close all loopholes, protect all that belongs to Malawians and ensure you make friends with those that can assist you. Listen to the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and donors for the benefit of those you serve. The donors have said they want a forensic audit of the stolen K92-billion, to find out who did what.
The German government has $25-million to do that and I think they’ve identified a firm to do a forensic audit. They have clearly stated that if this is not done, they aren’t going to bring back money. My short experience as head of state is that donors don’t joke.
When are you returning to Malawi?
I can’t reveal that. When I’ve finished my programme I’ll go home. Just like all other former heads of state, I’m free to come in and out of my country or live anywhere else I choose.—Mail &Guardian (amaBhungane)
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