Not bad Madam President: Critique of State of the Nation Address

In the 21st century, developing any poor country like Malawi requires at least two things: a) a stable democratic environment with strong emphasis on the rule of law, and b) an environment conducive for technological development. Leaders that seek to lead their countries out of poverty must have a strategy that embraces these two pillars. On those two counts, President Joyce Banda’s budget speech scored extremely high on one and failed on the other. Overall, the speech marked a rather good start for the second female president of Africa.

A few weeks ago some of us voiced concerns that the new government did not seem to have a clear strategy for developing the country. We were told then that the President would set a clear and radical strategy in an address to mark the opening of parliament. Listening to that highly anticipated speech this Friday, somewhere halfway through it, I kept wondering whether I was listening to Bingu wa Mutharika or Joyce Banda. For a government that promised radical and robust strategy, it was a bit strange that the president’s speech basked too much in the glory of the previous government, especially on achievements in the agricultural sector. She could as well have been reading a speech written by Bingu.

A lot of the speech was dedicated to tobacco. Perhaps this is understandable considering that tobacco is a major export of the country. But to those who had wanted to see what the president ‘s agenda is beyond tobacco, this speech was disappointing. The world is moving away from tobacco. Malawi cannot rely on tobacco exports for much longer.

President Banda

Elsewhere the speech was short on specifics where more were needed and too detailed where none were required. The president alluded to the advancement of the much-needed advancement in scientific and technological development, and local entrepreneurship. But she provided no specific details on how this is going to be achieved. In fact, as with agriculture, much of what was said in this area seemed to have been gleaned from previous presidential speeches.

The speech was too long and had a lot of lackluster items, which unfortunately, masked some very good ideas she had. For instance, one wonders whether the construction of a runaway at an airport or introduction of a cruise on the lake should have made it into the speech. It was also not quite clear what she meant by “construction of tourist routes”.

Nevertheless, there were a lot of good points in the speech. Her commitment to reforming the university entrance system was welcome especially with the setting up of a committee to look into ways of expanding the University. Everybody who qualifies to go to college should be allowed to go; and at the same time we must make sure we are not leaving behind districts that have traditionally required affirmation action. Perhaps this committee should also look into the factors that make these districts perform poorly with the intention of correcting the problem. A taxpayers’ university must train people from every corner of the country.

The highest point of the speech was clearly her intention to repeal repressive laws. The repeal of the sections that censored freedom of speech and journalist practices was very courageous. She also took a giant and noble step away from her three predecessors who shamelessly used the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) for their political ambitions. We should also not underestimate the courage to repel laws that prohibit homosexuality in the country. We all have our religious and cultural convictions on this issue but the world has moved on and we cannot afford to remain behind. This was a good day for Malawi.

The lowest point of the speech was the institution of the commission to probe the so-called “coup plotters”. As some of us have argued elsewhere, in any country that claims democracy and rule of law, nobody should be persecuted for wanting to ask the courts to interpret laws in his/her favour. All the accounts we have heard from people of different political parties present at these so called “coup” meetings indicate that all discussions centered on filing an injunction and then asking the courts to interpret the law. After all, you had a vice president who had formed her own political party. Could she be barred from taking over the presidency in the same manner a second vice president, who comes from a different party, cannot automatically succeed the president?

Whatever happened in these meetings did not even come close to the definition of a coup d’etat. At no point did anybody physically prevent Joyce Banda from executing her presidential responsibilities which, according to the constitution, were automatically passed to her the moment Bingu wa Mutharika died. The institution of a probe in this regard is, therefore, shameful and beneath the dignity of the office of the president. The highest office of the land must not be used to settle personal scores.

On presentation style, my advice to the president and her people is that next time they should limit the speech to 45 minutes and only dwell on major issues. It will also not hurt to have the president rehearse the speech several times with her speechwriters –all presidents do it, by the way.

As with all presidential speeches and ambitions, the real test of this agenda will be in implementation. Obviously, in some cases, the agenda appears very ambitious and it will be interesting to see how she will stick to these policies in the next two years. Overall the speech was good and, from this former professor, she earns a B+. But since this is the first time she is giving the speech after getting the presidency through a rather difficult process, I am willing to bump up the grade to A-.

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