Malawi President Joyce Banda’s decision to fire her entire cabinet will help restore confidence among graft-wary donors, while reinforcing her no-nonsense reputation ahead of next year’s elections, analysts said.
Amid mounting reports that some of her cabinet ministers were lining their pockets from state coffers in a country heavily reliant on foreign aid, Banda late Thursday made a surprise move by sending her entire 25 ministers packing.
The decision came just hours after the European Union, one of the key donors to Malawi’s budget, warned it would withhold its 29 million euro ($39 million) scheduled payout due in December until the authorities proved they were convincingly dealing with corruption.
Widespread fraud cases — in some cases involving millions of dollars of government funds — have been unearthed this year. A record case involved three million dollars paid to a ghost firm in a country ranked by the United Nations as among the poorest in the world.
While she was expected to take some drastic action in line with a reputation she is building, the sacking of an entire cabinet shocked many.
“It’s certainly unprecedented for an African leader, a southern African leader, to have taken a decision like this,” said Aditi Lalbahadur, a researcher with the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA).
Many had expected she would get rid of the finance minister Ken Lipenga and possibly other officials, but not a whole cabinet.
“She is certainly making herself out to be someone who is a no-nonsense person, standing up for right and good in Malawi,” said Lalbahadur.
Since coming to office last year her reputation for strong, at times controversial decisions, included the refusal to host the African Union summit last year if Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir was going to attend.
Some locals have lauded her bravery and see her actions as also positioning her positively ahead of the May 2014 elections.
“This is the first step to restoring public confidence as we approach the general elections next year,” said Billy Mayaya, a consumer rights activist, who hours before the cabinet dismissal had led a protest march of some 400 people demanding the removal of the finance minister.
Banda’s decision also “sends a strong message not only to Malawian officials but to other leaders in the region,” said Thomas Wheeler also from the SAIIA.
“Very few leaders in the region have had the guts to do what she has done, given the fact that corruption is a big problem.”
At number 88 out of 176 countries, according to the latest Transparency International global corruption barometer, Malawi is not among the most corruption-ridden nations in the world.
But given the fragility of the country’s economy, the siphoning off of millions of dollars would surely dent the system.
Noel Phiri, who hawks second-hand clothes on the streets of Blantyre, is “shocked at the extent of the looting”.
“All this money would have been used to create jobs for vendors like me,” said Phiri.
Banda came into office last year taking over from the late leader Bingu wa Mutharika and introducing some stringent economic recovery measures.
While being praised by the international community as a courageous reformer, some of her economic measures have made Banda increasingly unpopular at home.
These measures, which saw the currency lose half of its value last year, hit poor Malawians hard but unlocked a loan to cushion foreign exchange shortages.
Billy Banda, head of Malawi Watch, a rights grouping, said a cabinet shake-up was “long overdue”.
“We hope this time the president will appoint people of integrity.”
An independent audit, which also probes the president, should be carried out to restore trust of the Malawians and donors, suggested Billy Banda.
At her office there was no indication Friday as to when a new cabinet will be announced. Spokesman Tusekele Mwanyongo only said a new line-up will be revealed “in due course”.
He said Banda “acted based on the ongoing investigations in the ministries”, to ensure that no-one interferes with the probes.Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :