Post JB era: Malawi must reject neocolonialism going forward

As the governing People’s Party scratches its heads over its jarring loss in last week’s controversial presidential, parliamentary and local elections, the role played by the West in propping up the Banda regime should nudge Malawi, which turns 50 this year, to move in a direction that will bring about true economic independence.

That is all there is to say about the political drama of the last two years under President Joyce Banda who signed up to finish the remainder of her predecessor’s term. Not enough said? Let us then begin with what happened as unofficial election returns started rolling in suggesting a big win for President Banda’s nemesis Peter Mutharika of the former governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

Banda apparently suffered from shell-shock seeing the individual partly responsible for her ouster from DPP three years ago running away with the presidential election.

President Banda and British Prime Minister  David Cameron  at Number 10 Downing Street in London

President Banda and British Prime Minister David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street in London

While serving as Vice President for DPP and Malawi respectively, Banda was passed over by Bingu wa Mutharika for his younger brother Peter as his successor at the end of his term in 2014, a plan Banda opposed leading to her expulsion from the party.

But two years before the end of his term, Mutharika suffered a fatal heart attack and was succeeded by Banda as stipulated by the country’s constitution. In last week’s polls, President Banda sought her own mandate but she came in third position behind the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) which had ruled for 30 years since independence in 1964.

Citing irregularities and rigging by the DPP, President Banda annulled the results and ordered fresh elections in 90 days. The president said she would not participate in the new elections but the cancellation of results was rejected by the High Court which found Banda’s action not grounded in law.

The Malawi Electoral Commission, which has been challenged by MCP and others to recount votes, says it will announce the winner May 30.

When Peter contested, he was still answering treason charges stemming from developments — senior DPP members are said to have discussed stopping Banda’s ascendency to the presidency because she was not a ruling party member — that happened soon after his brother’s death. He denies any wrongdoing.

President Banda had her own problems, some of which were self-inflected, when she ran for office. Ironically, when they assumed power, the new president and her deputy promised to be different but in the end it turned to be new clowns, same old circus.

The pair who appeared at most local events together were extravagant, traveling non-stop both locally and internationally while telling everyone else not live beyond their means. They were in a perpetual campaign mode as they engaged in exercises that could have easily been performed by relevant government agencies. Was there any need for the president to be distributing cows and relief maize to hungry folks non-stop?

But believing their strategy would work in the long run, especially in rural areas where most people live, Banda refused to change course while Khumbo Kachali lashed out at critics, saying they were acting as though he and the president were uninvited guests at their parents’ homes.

And capitalizing on a “mistake” by her predecessor whose purchase of a presidential jet infuriated Britain, Malawi’s main bilateral aid donor, Banda announced that her government had disposed of the jet. When a newspaper later revealed that nothing was deposited into the government account, the president and his finance minister had different versions of what happened to the proceeds from the sale.

Her popularity took another hit after some civil servants were caught with large amounts of cash last year in a scandal called Cashgate. A forensic audit paid for by the UK discovered $32 million missing from the Treasury. It was found that government paid for services that were never rendered and those who got the money included individuals with strong links to Banda’s party. Her opponents made the case that the theft was an inside job designed to raise funds for the ruling party’s campaigns.

The audit report however did not reveal names. Britain maintained that releasing the names would impact court cases but critics felt the UK was up to no good. Probably the UK saw the need support Banda, Malawi first and Africa’s second female head of state. She helped mend Malawi-UK diplomatic ties ruptured after Bingu expelled a British envoy who had called him an autocrat in a leaked cable to his superiors in London.

What cannot be denied is that there was no shortage of advice for Banda in the two years she was in office. She was former British premier Tony Blair’s client and to secure credit from the International Monetary Fund, the Malawi leader did as asked and implemented economic reforms including currency devaluation which saw commodity prices go up which was yet another chink in the president’s armor.

Blair and his team left as more Cashgate revelations surfaced. But Blair said they knew nothing about the fraud.

It is anybody’s guess who MEC will call the election for on May 30. In the unofficial results Peter was ahead of the incumbent. He ran promising to continue his brother’s agenda. When alive, there were two Bingus. The one before the 2009 landslide victory delivered thus people gave him overwhelming support to lead them another five years. The post
2009 Bingu was different. He fought with anybody who challenged him, managing to turn friends into enemies.

So which Bingu should Malawians expect Peter to follow if he is declared winner?

While there was disapproval with his picking fights with donors which led to freezing of development aid — restarted when Banda assumed office and refrozen following Cashgate — independent countries like Malawi often complain of neocolonialism, saying rich nations like to use their money to influence them politically, economically, socially or culturally.

There is nothing wrong with a donor holding a recipient of its aid accountable but there is everything wrong with trying for example to choose a leader for a country. It is unfortunate that 50 years after independence, Malawi is far from shaking off the legacy of colonialism and the person to be announced winner on May 30 must start in earnest making serious moves to wean the country of foreign aid. Malawi’s development partners have already hinted that their aid may never come back after Cashgate.

* The author is former founding editor of Maravi Post who is now a columnist on Nyasa Times

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