CounterJab: Mutharika sets tone from the top; Banda’s legacy under spotlight

As with many polls, spin followed the Gallup survey on African leaders released before the US-Africa Leader’s summit in the United States earlier this month.

Gallup surveyed presidents from more than half of 26 sub-Saharan African countries and former Malawi President Joyce Banda’s job approval rating was at 51 percent, a spot she shared with Mauritania’s leader.

 Nyasa Times, Maravi Post and Malawi Voice were unanimous in declaring Banda’s score among Africa’s worst leaders.

“My foot!” wrote Xavier Kadzemawa, a political scientist and Nyasa Times consultant researcher. “How on earth could someone who scored a 51 percent rating be regarded as ‘the worst’?”

Peter Mutharika and Joyce Banda
Peter Mutharika and Joyce Banda

The survey, he said, did not ask “who is the worst president?”

That observation is true.

Kadzemawa also noted that “many others got lesser approval ratings” and that “many of the countries that polled higher than Malawi, for instance, were autocracies where people’s rights and freedoms rarely or do not exist. There is no free press and no freedom of expression.”

In saying Banda did not do well in the poll, could it be a question of looking at one’s grade as a pass, credit or distinction? Of the 26 surveyed, there are 15 ahead of Banda among them the leaders of Botswana, Tanzania, Kenya, Senegal and Ghana. Regarding freedom of expression, these countries do well in surveys by Reporters Without Borders and IFEX which is short for International Freedom of Expression Exchange.

Something can be gleaned from the findings of the survey conducted last August. Gallup said “better-off residents [were] more likely to give high marks to their presidents” which in this author’s view is the crux of the matter.

That the poll was conducted a year after Banda “inherited a near-collapse and sick economy” as Kadzemawa points out is indisputable. But what should not be forgotten also is that when President Bingu wa Mutharika died unexpectedly in office, his popularity had already gone down the toilet.

Banda, whose relationship with Bingu as his vice had been irretrievably broken over succession disagreements, had plenty of goodwill.

As Malawi’s first female head of state and Africa’s only second in modern times, Banda was honored lavishly abroad but at home it did not take long for Malawians to suffer from buyer’s remorse.

Like the pollster said, respondents who feel good about their situation will give their leader kudos. Being “better-off” must, among others, include peace andavailability of food, which is a far more important human right, to starve off hunger and anger before people can worry about the press which of course must also be free.

While there is validity to the argument that a year in office is too short to fairly judge someone, it behooves one making that case to acknowledge that Banda’s successor has done more in just two and a half months in office, beating all democratically elected presidents in Malawi since 1994.

The quiet leader appointed a cabinet of 20, down from the usual thirty something, to save the taxpayer money. He has two international trips under his belt as president and dispatches his deputy to most local events.The much anticipated civil service reform is underway and there is some movement in the trials of those suspected to have systematically stolen from public funds over $30 million –not chump change for a country heavily dependent on foreign aid — when Banda was in power.

Mutharika, a respected international jurist who spent his professional life teaching law in the United States, has ordered his ministers to “get down to business.”

At his maiden press conference August 12, the president said: “I am giving you 30 days to come up with ways on how your ministries can woo investment.

“There’re opportunities out there that can help grow our ailing economy, but we need to grasp them as a country. There’s money dangling somewhere, but we can’t have it if we do nothing.”

It is not as though there have not been missteps. The dropping of corruption charges against some high ranking government officials and the appointments at senior levels of many advisers whose roles only appear to make sense to the appointing authority were all unseemly.

Followers can only hope that their party and Mutharika won’t feel entitled. Ask Banda who in an August 4 interview with New African magazine says the vote in the May 20 poll was “stolen”. The former president,who also claims her conceding defeat prevented a bloodbath since her supporters were getting armed and dangerous, probably thoughtthe freebies she distributed would win votes.

In the end, those whose lives improve reward their leaders. Leaders who screw up get fired.

Introducing  CounterJab’ column on Nyasa Times  by Patrick Mwanza who is former founding editor of Maravi Post.

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