Joyce Banda: Malawi President who abused people’s goodwill and lost the plot

Karl Marx observed that “men [and women] make their own history but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” Adding that “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

Marx made this observation in 1800s but his observation remain relevant and applicable today; and it resonates with Joyce Banda’s somewhat enigmatic presidency, now in its 21st months. Joyce Banda’s presidency cannot be divorced from its inheritance. It was clear from the time Joyce Banda ascended to the highest office, succeeding Bingu wa Mutharika whom she deputised for nearly three years, that President Banda had difficult economic decisions to make. Yet the President’s advantage was that everyone was aware of the tough task she faced and people expected tough times.

President Banda
President Banda

The trickiest part from Joyce Banda’s point of view was that her economic decisions had to be inline if not fully subscribed by IMF and other key donors. This pitted her against Malawians whose mandate she needs to govern but at the same time she could not ignore the donor community whose support she badly needed to steady the sinking economy that almost nosedived when the late Mutharika fell out with donors.

President Banda needed no lecture on what could happen if donors stayed away, she was around to see the last days of her successor when Malawi’s fuel pump ran dry and there was no foreign currency for the country to import even basic necessities.

It was always a monumental task for President Banda, but not an impossible one. Especially that President Banda had a lot of good will both at home and abroad – people genuinely wanted her to succeed. With hindsight we can now argue that President Banda was way too eager to sale herself to the donor community. Yes, Bingu left Malawi at a vulnerable position without bargaining power.

But the wholesale devaluation of the Kwacha at 50% when some economists advised to do the inevitable devaluation in phases is a sign of naivety, not desperation. Failure to cushion the most vulnerable Malawians from the effects of the devaluation is a testimony that her administration was only too happy to please the IMF even at the expense of Malawians. Consumers Association of Malawi, led by its ever-present leader, John Kapito demonstrated against this and as always he was portrayed as attention-seeking and overzealous man.

Curiously, this was at a time when President Banda was receiving a lot of plaudits from the international community. IMF chief Christine Lagarde visited Malawi to see for herself the ‘success’ of austerity measures her organisation had forced on poor Malawians. This contrast made it apparent that the choice for Joyce Banda was between serving the economy for the benefit of Malawians and serving the donor community in order to attract more goodwill, and hopefully more money.

The money came and cashgate has subsequently shown that the money was only there to line the pockets of the ruling party cadre and the privileged few within the civil service while majority of poor Malawians went to hospitals that had no medicine; kids went to government schools that lacked basic teaching materials; teachers and hospitals workers always received their meagre salaries very late.

Shameful turn of events for most Malawians and people who placed their high hopes on Africa’s second female head of state. But this is not without an explanation. The fact that Joyce Banda and her People’s Party (PP) are facing uncertain tripartite elections means that President Banda has a triangle to negotiate: winning elections, saving the economy and pleasing donors. You cannot save more that one master, as they say. One has to give. Joyce Banda chose the donor community as her main priority; she listened to them more than Malawians. She pleased them more than Malawians; she successfully created duo personalities one for international community and one for Malawians at home. She happily travelled around the world and told donors that she is happy to “sacrifice her political career” for the sake of Malawi economy – a statement she would never make at home.

She was praised by former British Secretary of State for Development Andrew Mitchell as a caring president for selling the presidential jet. Thanks to some excellent journalism (rare these days), we now know that she continues using the “sold” jet. The presidency was praised globally for cutting their salaries by 30% to show solidarity with all Malawians struggling with the IMF imposed austerity measures, when at home President Banda travelled daily campaigning for her party, masquerading as “development rallies”, pocketing colossal sums of allowances and depleting the state resources in the process.

Those that have been paying attention will rightly say none of this is new, correct. What is new however is that the international community that Joyce Banda wasted so much effort, time and resources on are finally seeing what everyone honest Malawian has known throughout. President Banda knows it and she is panicking about it. Hence the hiring of top of the rage London based PR firm – Bell Portinger to salvage her international reputation. Her personal reputation matters more than the plight of the currently she swore to serve and protect.

Her’ is a self-serving presidency hell-bent on wining the next election, not serving the people of Malawi as the president promised when she took that oath on 7th April 2012. The international media that glorified her “good leadership” can now see through the velvet curtains that masked true colours. Instead of being remembered as an Africa’s second female president who re-installed hope after Bingu’s economic mismanagement, Joyce Banda stands a better chance of being remembered as a president who abused people’s good will and lost the plot. Whatever happens on 20th May 2014 will not change this fact.

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