Malawi Pres. Joyce Banda misses her finest hour: ‘Cut the Chaff’

In Weekend Nation newspaper, award winning columnist  Ephraim Munthali of the  ‘Cut the chaff‘ has called President Joyce Banda’s state opening address of Parliament a missed opportunity . Here is the full article as it appeared:

Maybe I had too high expectations. In terms of both style and substance, I expected President Joyce Banda last week to deliver the finest—and history would probably have recorded as the most important speech of her presidency and political career.

I hoped that President Banda’s second State of The Nation Address would be a political game changer, something that would give her the political momentum she badly needed exactly 12 months to elections day as she put meat on her hitherto skeletal agenda that is the Economic Recovery Plan (ERP).

I hoped that the speech, which marked the official opening of the 44th Session of Parliament and the 2013/14 budget meeting, would over throw her 2014 presidential rivals—without the privilege of such a powerful bully pulpit—off balance with her politically well calculated, but potentially poverty busting initiatives. But there was nothing doing.

I prayed for a transformation in the composure and general body language—an improvement from her first such appearance on the biggest political stage last year, which was a nervous, dreamful, even naive performance haltingly delivered in a shrilling voice.

President Banda delivers the State of the Nation Address in Parliament on 17 May 2013
President Banda delivers the State of the Nation Address in Parliament on 17 May 2013

Last Friday was no better. In fact, the way she struggled to read the text gave you the impression that she had not gone through the statement before the two-hour delivery.

She was detached and read the statement as if she herself did not believe in its authenticity and the potency of her “dreams.”

I expected that last Friday’s speech would be bold and measured in both tone and text to epitomise political maturity that can only come with experience and a clinical appreciation of the problems of our time and how to solve them.

I thought the President would put forward a plan that, granted, may not necessarily sound new, but which I hoped would summon more clarity in its construction, would be more nuanced, would have a ring of “the urgency of now” to be followed up with a more robust and goal getting National Budget.

At the end of that address, I thought I would get away with the sense that the President might as well have said: “My name is Joyce Hilda Mtila Banda and I am the President,”—a subtle projection that while candidates such as Peter Mutharika, Atupele Muluzi and whoever may throw their hats in the ring are announcing that they are running ‘for’ President, they may as well be running ‘after’ her. That speech should have cemented her front runner status. It did not. Things are as they were before the address. It’s as if she had not even spoken to the nation. What a pity and a missed opportunity!

But that is not to say her speech was completely hopeless. There were some passages that I found inspiring—statements that I would call the Joyce Banda doctrine:

“We are called upon to set new goals to guide us along the road to recovery and transformation, to sketch a landscape in which we can act on our collective dream and to draft a plan to deliver us from the consequences of our past mistakes.”

“Mr. Speaker, Sir, as we continue to reconstruct Malawi and reclaim the whole country for all, we break down the divisions and attitudes of the past. We free everyone from the last forces of oppression and cynicism. The emerging period must be a period of all Malawian people, to continue working together, building the nation. For it is only when we strive towards this unity, as a people with one destiny, that we will release our energies, enabling us to fully rebuild this great nation.”

“Mr. Speaker, Sir, it is our task to make the most of our freedom, to entrench it as a fundamental and permanent feature of our existence. It is our task to continue to work for democracy and good governance in the coming years ensuring that peace and stability prevail throughout this country. It is our task to manage the economy with prudence and diligence to ensure inclusive growth and prosperity. The challenge facing each and every one of us is to contribute to a complete and rounded picture of the emerging period.”

If President Banda can walk this talk, even half of it, she may be destined for greatness, leaving office with an enduring legacy.

There were also moments that were a breath of fresh air in their honesty, a trait that usually lacks in politicians.

I also admired her steadfastness, despite their unpopularity, on her reform efforts and accepting responsibility for their negative impact on citizens even as she offered hope, pointing out the ‘green shoots’ such as a strengthening Malawi kwacha—never mind that the President said she spotted the local currency movements in the newspapers , which she claims she does not read.

“Yes, there has been pain, and we may continue experiencing pain, though at a reduced level for some time. This is expected in any situation like we found ourselves in. Mr. Speaker, Sir, it is expecting a miracle for one to recover from the economic death bed without feeling pain. The pain we are suffering is the price we are paying for allowing ourselves into the situation we found ourselves in. It is my hope and prayer that we will learn from the past and accept that procrastinating to take tough decisions for short-term gains or to feed our personal political greed will always lead to painful situations,” she said.

I must say, I respected her strength and resolve on this issue given the tough political climate and backlash these policies have brought.

But her speech writers must drop the ridiculous and childish ‘I have a dream’ mantra. It sounds pretentious and, frankly, points to a deficit of creativity and original thought.

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