Malawi President Banda triggers controversy over arms deal

Malawi President Joyce Banda has hit international headlines with a controversial arms deal with a charitable foundation linked to an African arms company whose director is running a reputation management campaign by Banda to win back foreign donors following a corruption scandal.

Britain’s broadsheet newspaper, The Daily Telegraph exposed the arms deal in their publication, quoting an email accidentally sent to the publication Eric Ichikowitz, executive director of Paramount Group, Africa’s largest private defence and aerospace firm, instructs that Banda only give face-to-face interviews, adding that telephone interviews “send the wrong message”.

The paper reported that Banda commissioned seven interceptor boats from Paramount which will be fitted with arms to patrol Lake Malawi.

President Banda has also committed to paying for Paramount to provide training and maintenance for the boats over the next five years, as well as potentially buying other, larger boats from the company, the report said, quoting the email.

President Banda in an interview with UK’s Daily Telegraph

It was reported that as well as taking orders for military hardware, Ichikowitz, through a private equity firm called Trans Africa Capital, is also understood to have signed agriculture and fuel contracts with Malawi’s government.

A family foundation set up by Ichikowitz and his brother Ivor, Paramount’s executive chairman, is running the government’s public relations operation.

Bell Pottinger, the London PR firm leading the operation to instil confident in western taxpayers and politicians about Banda’s ability to tackle corruption, already counts Paramount and its associated companies, among its key clients.

The newspaper also revealed that interviews President Banda is conducting with international media are being arranged by Bell Pottinger,  and the Malawi leaser confirmed, saying  “friends positioned those people to come and talk to me”.

“It’s neither here nor there who they are or who pays them – what is important is for me to send our story out to the international community,” she  is quoted saying.

President Banda also defended the buying of military equipment at a time when Malawian doctors and nurses were threatening to strike over non-payment and a lack of basic drugs and equipment.

She said that not only did Malawi need to reinforce its “porous” border, but it was facing an “invasion” by Tanzania because of a row over the ownership of Lake Malawi, where a British firm is currently prospecting for oil.

“It is the human trafficking and the illegal entry that is paramount for me – for the people of Malawi it is the boundary and feeling vulnerable that our army is vulnerable and not well-equipped to face anything and protect Malawians,” she said.

“Buying of equipment for the army to us is a must and it is a priority.”

Meanwhile, Sir Malcolm Bruce, chair of the UK’s International Development Select Committee, which recommended that direct aid be resumed after Banda came to power, said her apparent spending priorities were “concerning”.

“Joyce Banda has to be very careful that by going down that lane she does not finish up undermining the much more fundamental partnerships with donors,” he said.

“Donors will not be keen on supporting military expenditure and if she is diverting resources to it, it will not just mean that she will not get budgetary support now but it may mean that all future support is reviewed.”

Banda insists that the order of armed vessels from a South African defence firm “was a request from the people”, despite Malawian finances being hit by donors’ departure over corruption scandal.

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