Curse of the Malawi presidency

The statement from State House last week was quick to point out that President Joyce Banda would fly South African Airways out of Lilongwe, but was silent on what she would fly from South Africa to Nigeria, on her State-funded pilgrimage to the temple of TB Joshua, her favourite soothsayer.

From South Africa, she likely flew in the splendour of a private jet, as she has taken to doing lately.

The statement did not mention that, obviously. Perhaps even State House knows the President’s frequent flying around in this private jet ostensibly given to her by some mysterious “well-wishers” appears to be an unfortunate penchant for rapacious and rather shameful self-aggrandisement totally out of keeping with the leader who sold off the country’s presidential jet because it was a wasteful luxury.

President Joyce Banda
President Joyce Banda

That government has steadfastly refused to name who the jet belongs to and what the owners of the jet are getting in return tells you something stinks about this whole arrangement. In this world we live in you do not get to be given a high-end private jet to use for free, even if you are Africa’s second female president.

Those who know her very well say Joyce Banda was an honest, upstanding, compassionate person when she ran NABW, her Joyce Banda Foundation School and did not have much political power.

Many people liked her when she was a miserable vice-president confined to Mudi House and being bludgeoned into submission by a regime whose single-minded determination to make Peter Mutharika the next president was staggering. So, somewhere inside this Joyce Banda you see today is a Joyce Banda who truly cares for Malawi and its people.

But for some reason, Malawi’s presidency has an uncanny propensity to transform otherwise paragons of virtue into dubious characters, given to corruption and other excesses in a ruthless pursuit of wealth, power and domination. In the brief period that she has been President, Banda has been no exception to this rule. She has steadfastly refused to declare her assets and members of her family—one of whom was running a ramshackle bottle store just the other day—are suddenly very wealthy with an impressive portfolio of property and businesses.

It appears that the sudden qualification of the President’s close family as enterprising businesspersons is that they are the President’s family. And, from having nothing just over a year ago, her party now has more orange cars on the road than they seem to know what to do with them. Twenty-two of these cars, it must be said, were purchased by what we now know were dubious funds looted from government coffers. That the party has not had the good sense to return these vehicles to the sullied donor tells you everything you want to know about this intricate web of power, greed and deceit.

I am m not sure I have ever seen a politician who has triggered so many different emotions in people over such a short period of time: from joy and hope to disbelief, despair and anger. Now it is open resentment.

It must be mystifying for anyone who lived through the unrelenting nightmare that Bingu wa Mutharika had become to see how, today, people are looking back to the Mutharika years rather kindly. In May 2014, Peter Mutharika might just benefit from this sentiment.

Most of the Joyce Banda’s sins to date are, of course, self-inflicted. Her handling of the cashgate has been pure scandal. First she knew who shot Paul Mphwiyo and why. Then she had a memory relapse and did not know anything. And attempting to absolve herself by saying that the beneficiaries and recipients of stolen government money were innocent was, in fact, criminal. I am sure that when she had time to reflect on this statement, she realised that this was not her finest hour.

Even then, it is not clear if she appreciates the myriad of problems cashgate has caused this country. It is also not clear she is up to doing what has to be done to fix the mess because, truth be told, her party desperately needs the money to finance her campaign. On the evidence of what we have seen so far, it not clear that JB’s PP can be trusted to put this country on the path to greatness, and it’s not clear that—other than giving a cow a village—the President even has the blueprint of what it will take to make Malawi great again.

But it is clear that it is politics of greed which has brought us to this tragic situation. Governance, for PP, is now confined to staying in power, at whatever cost, even at the cost of the lives of citizens who regularly wallow without essential drugs in hospitals while money is diverted to purchase buses and orange vehicles to be used in the campaign.

One thing, though, that might save Malawi from major crisis is the memory of its citizens.

The people of Malawi learnt one great lesson as they battled the beast that was Bingu. Never again must we allow another leader or government, never mind how ostensibly benevolent initially, to become so omnipotent, so arrogant, so totally unaccountable, so devoid of transparency and yet so totally out of touch with reality.

Even TB Joshua knows this.

The author is a Malawian journalist based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

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