Joyce Banda: New president, old tricks?

Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, needs no reminder that her honeymoon in office is over. When she assumed office in the aftermath of Bingu wa Mutharika’s sudden death, not many people, least among them Banda herself, would have thought that in just under two years, her presidency could be beset by so many problems and challenges.

At the time of his death, Mutharika had become a fierce thorn in the flesh of his people and the international community. Stubborn, arrogant and unwavering, he appeared to be following in the footsteps of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe: increasingly anti-people, anti-democratic and anti-West, all in the name of sovereignty.

Indeed, the food, fuel and forex shortages encountered in Malawi in the final months of Mutharika’s presidency remarkably mirrored Zimbabwe’s own experiences a few years earlier. Add to this the violent repression of dissent and you could see the full import of Harare’s style and tactic of governance being executed by Lilongwe to the letter.

In the latter Mutharika administration, Banda was something of a non-entity, ostracised and reduced to a ceremonial vice president. She was not wanted but could not be rid of unconstitutionally so she was just ignored and best left to her own devices.

Hence, upon assuming office, Banda’s leadership style was to be as far different from Mutharika’s as possible. Freedom and rights were respected and perhaps even more significantly, relations with the donor and international communities were restored. Malawi was slowly working again, or so many people thought.

President Banda
President Banda

But as Banda basked in the glory of international fame, winning numerous awards, being invited to speak at prestigious events, being awarded doctorates and attracting high-profile visits to Malawi, a serious disparity emerged between how she was perceived domestically and internationally.

At the height of Banda’s international glory, it became normal to wonder if much of her “success” in international eyes was a result of her being Africa’s second female president and also, her not being Mutharika as opposed to actually having achieved something significant for the people of Malawi.

This coming May, when Malawians vote to elect a new government, a Banda victory is hardly a foregone conclusion. This may surprise part of the international community who think that Banda has done a sterling job in steering Malawi onto the right path. Nothing could be further from the truth some Malawians will argue.

Revelations of massive looting by government officials have tainted Banda’s presidency. Dubbed “cashgate”, this scandal has sucked in senior members of her ruling People’s Party, leaving plenty of room for speculation as to the extent of the president’s own involvement in the whole affair. She insists she is innocent.

At least $100 million is suspected to have been looted from government coffers by way of manipulating the Integrated Financial Management Information System, used for all transactions. About 70 people have been arrested and questioned by police and many more are still expected to be apprehended as investigations continue.

On her part, President Banda has vowed to get to the bottom of the issue and has publicly disclosed that she knows the people who shot former budget director Paul Mphwiyo, the man whose shooting incident unravelled this scandal. She has also repeatedly claimed that she is receiving death threats because of the “uncompromising” stance she has taken against corruption.

Strangely, a forensic audit report on the scandal is unlikely to be made public. If it finds itself in the public domain, it is likely to be heavily watered-down, without any significant information on who exactly did what, how and why. The British government, which is funding the forensic audit, has already made it clear that parts of the report will be kept secret, except to only a select few.

Beyond “cashgate”, another issue dogging Banda is that of the presidential private jet, bought by late Mutharika in his prime. The jet is of interest because its much-publicised sale contributed quite significantly to the sharp rise in Banda’s international credibility ratings.

Within the first few months of assuming office, she committed to selling off the private jet, accusing Mutharika of having wasted crucial forex reserves on an item the country did not need. But her government was recently forced to admit that she is still using the very same jet, despite initially rubbishing reports of her doing so.

Why is president Banda using a jet her government agreed to get rid of because it was an unnecessary luxury and a burden on taxpayers? Well, it’s complicated but the long and short of it is that the arrangement between the buyer of the jet — Bohnox Enterprises — and president Banda smells rotten.

More critically it has emerged that proceeds from the sale of the jet — about $15million in total — cannot be traced at all. The presidency, the ministry of finance and the reserve bank of Malawi keep pushing the buck between each other and no one will take responsibility or at least account for where the money went.

How much more damage can a leader preside over in just under two years?

President Banda will be seeking her own mandate to govern this May. But despite the goodwill and international backing behind her, she might just have proved that she is no different from Mutharika and those who came before him.

The Banda experience must serve as an example to those who are quick to give praise, to award and reward African presidents and leaders.

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