Malawi President Joyce Banda on a bumpy road to 2014 polls

President Joyce Banda’s one year in power, which over the weekend coincided with the recollection of late president Bingu wa Mutharika’s legacy, has historically heralded the beginning of what is going to be one of the most treacherous elections. If Mutharika’s repressive record was the only determinant, Banda should at the moment be having a slight advantage over the other presidential aspirants. She doesn’t. The euphoria that greeted her rise to power has been shrinking fast.

Asked to grade her one-year performance in a recent BBC Focus on Africa interview, Banda did not want to just ‘ponder’ but rather highlighted Malawi’s dire circumstances when she took office and the difficult decisions she has had to make. Her hesitation when pressed further on her score was enough indication of how things have turned-around within one year.

Though many people would want to frame Banda’s opaque performance through gender prejudice, it is fair to say that the decisions and actions she has taken this far have not been influenced by her femininity. She has made them as any ordinary leader and politician. And that is where her problem lies. Whilst Banda inherited immense economic problems, many people are beginning to doubt if she really has answers to the country’s challenging problems. Banda has in short failed to usher in a ‘new era’ of clean politics and dynamic interest and approaches to transform Malawi.

Pres.Banda with a old lady whom she helped with maize donation
Pres.Banda with a old lady whom she helped with maize donation

In the emerging cut-throat campaign, Banda faces four serious challenges: a perverse political environment from which she graduated; an economy still haemorrhaging and needing pragmatic and quick-witted solutions; as well as enigmatic tribal politics and gender bias.

First, although her People’s Party (PP) government has touted an austerity budget, the gist of her economic framework, the Economic Recovery Plan (ERP) is already tainted by acute wastage of tax-payers’ money. Her government’s expenditure of K1.6 billion on a new fleet of four-wheel-drive, Toyota Prado TX models for 35 ministers and their deputies is one of the insults poor Malawians cannot bear when they are suffering from the pangs of her bare devaluation and floatation of the Kwacha.

But equipped with the usual arrogance of politicians, Finance Minister Ken Lipenga has defended the imprudent purchase saying the cars were budgeted for. Of course, we just need to believe that Banda is cutting all corners, at least, when we hear that she’s looking around for empty seats in foreign presidential jets in order to carry the country’s begging bowl in her never-ending trips abroad. For sure, after previously misleading the country, no-one trusts Lipenga when he claims government will recover the cost of the soon-to-be-replaced Mercedes which have been used for less than 5 years.

Banda might be thinking she is buying patronage from the team of recycled politicians in her cabinet. But these are the mistakes which are making people have a favourable look at opposition political parties which should be struggling on life-support.  More importantly, many people are infuriated by allegations of corruption in the PP government. All of a sudden ruling party cadres are getting richer and the party is awash with costly paraphernalia. Besides, PP officials have become the latest untouchables who are priding themselves in pursuing arbitrary actions.

But having fallen under the armpits of the west, there is another whip on PP’s head flung by donors forcing their diktat down government’s throat. The European Union (EU) recently threatened the country with suspension of around K9 billion of aid irked by government’s decision to decrease the road levy on fuel by about 63%. Does that ring any bells about Mutharika’s hostility towards the west? Banda’s assurance though is that Malawi is calling the shots – the country is not being run from Brussels or the shadows of Bretton Woods’ debriefing rooms.

Nevertheless, some analysts might say that the economy will not really matter in the 2014 polls, because in essence, the campaign will not be issue-based but rather a personality contest. As another power struggle, the electioneering will be driven by retribution and desperate character assassination. That might be true. But people in towns and villages nationwide are seriously thinking about the financial woes they are experiencing.

If late Mutharika’s repressive regime mishandled the economy leading to shouts of regime change from the rooftops of anti-DPP conferences then the mammoth crowds at Peter Mutharika’s chala m’mwamba whistle stop tours indicate that something has gone horribly wrong.  Of course, it has become convenient for many scholars, political and media pundits in and outside Malawi to dismiss DPP’s ‘resurrection’ and isolate Mutharika’s dictatorship from the country’s defective political context which continues to prevail today.

And yet, that is the major hindrance to the consolidation of democracy, the realisation of good governance and economic development. As a fertile ground for the nurturing of Malawi’s chronic dictatorships, it remains one single obstacle to the emergence of progressive and good leadership. The critical question Banda should be asking therefore is: how different is PP from DPP, UDF and MCP?

The most honest answer is simply – there is no difference. This is why politicians can casually defect from one party to another. It is certainly not cynical to conclude that since the multiparty dispensation, Malawi has had one political party broken into various factions. It explains why Banda hired her first cabinet from the vestiges of DPP.

Furthermore, does it surprise anyone that the three party front-runners for the presidency were handpicked? Joyce Banda and Peter Mutharika by Bingu, and Atupele Muluzi by his father, ex-president Bakili Muluzi who imposed Bingu. For some people who are yearning for young and fresh blood in Malawi politics, Atupele is possibly the best representation. But his ‘Agenda for Change’ is a familiar cliché dressed in rudimentary clothes. When Atupele recites his plan during his rallies, it is the political sins of his father that are causing many Malawians develop fever.

This takes us to another potential problem for Banda. In the 2009 polls, Mutharika ‘broke’ the regionalistic voting boundaries even though he used nepotism as a tool for enhancing political loyalty and mobilisation. He ignited and left behind simmering ‘tribal grievances’. Critically so because ethnicity has been a defining factor in modern African politics and political manipulation of tribalism a toxic factor in elections. Banda needs to be careful to avoid ‘inflaming’ tribal passions as they have the possibility of working to her disadvantage particularly when there are fears that she is favouring people from one region.

Having broken the hard walls of male domination in politics Banda should be aware how the notion of gender can be harsh for women. For instance, there are still those who continue to nurse the myth that ‘Malawi is not ready for a woman president’. This cohort is creating scepticism about women leadership, depicting it as weak and incapable of managing the rigorous demands of the office of president (chanamuna bambo!). Already unpleasant sexist innuendos are being thrown at Banda. ‘She is suffering from confidence crisis’ some detractors have concluded, as if Muluzi or Mutharika never pinched themselves upon entering the gates of state house.

Which means Banda needs to play the ‘gender card’ wisely and avoid giving ammunition to chauvinists who have the potential of putting doubts about her candidacy into some voters. She needs to show that she is strong but also level-headed and pragmatic. The best weapon is to distinguish herself from her predecessors (the country’s three male presidents who led repressive and corrupt governments) by formulating a progressive manifesto for a ‘new Malawi’.

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