President Banda has her work cut out

The first order of business in this article is to congratulate Her Excellency President Joyce Banda on her ascension to the highest public office in the Republic of Malawi, the Presidency, on April 8th., 2012. She thus becomes the first woman in Southern Africa; and the second woman in Africa as a whole, to do so and this should make all Malawians rightfully proud. She succeeds Bingu wa Mutharika, a man who turned Malawi into a full-blown dictatorship despite it having a democratic constitution.

Mutharika also turned Malawi into an economic basket case without adequate forex reserves for necessary imports. Under him, the country clamoured for the uninterrupted supply of running water and electricity in towns and cities. He also put and left Malawi in the throes of a critical shortage of petroleum fuel, soft drinks, sugar and medicines in hospitals. Incidentally and ironically, had it been that the necessary Adrenaline to resuscitate him was available at Kamuzu Central Hospital where he was rushed to when he had his heart attack, Mutharika might still be alive today. Thus there is a poetic sense in which Mutharika’s own neglect of the service sector came back to kill him. But all these shortages also mean that President Banda has her work cut out for her, and she has only two years in which to right the helm of state and set its sails in the right direction before she faces voters in May, 2014. The ten days of mourning declared following the sudden death of the dictator on Thursday, May 5th, should give Mrs. Banda time to chart the way forward. God help her!

Her Excellency Joyce Banda: Hope to rebuild Malawi economy

The Economy and Public Services

The path to a good economy will have to pass through good relations with bilateral donors and international aid agencies. President Banda will need all her experience and skill as a former Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to re-establish diplomatic relations with Great Britain, an influential member and friend of the United States, the World Banda, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations and the European Union — all of whom we need in order to regain financial and other assistance. Britain is our former colonial administrator and has been our closest bilateral donor and best international intercessor since independence.  Mutharika somehow found it fit to expel the British High Commissioner on flimsy, egocentric grounds and heaped vituperation on the UK which, in response, expelled our High Commissioner in London and left Malawi alone to fend for herself on the international arena with disastrous consequences. The Brits also withdrew direct budgetary support to the Malawi Government and restricted their aid to agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Other countries and organizations followed suit, citing bad governance. Re-establishing and repairing relations with Her Majesty’s Government must have already occurred to former foreign minister Joyce Banda as an indispensable first step in regaining confidence with foreign donors.

That path to a good economy also traverses places called good economic management, sound monetary policy and fighting corruption which was endemic in the Mutharika presidency. In the immediate term Mrs. Banda might have to devalue the local Kwacha against other currencies, one of the preconditions for getting back on track with the IMF. And as the tobacco marketing season is already underway, Mrs. Banda will need to strike the right chord in relations with buyers at the auction floors. In these regards, Bingu wa Mutharika’s attitude consisted of a voodoo-style aversion to currency devaluation, lip service to import-export rationalization and obscene interference in the operations of, and pricing, at tobacco auction floors. The result was a perennially dysfunctional tobacco auction, blooming imports, dwindling exports, an overvalued Kwacha and a serious forex crunch with its entire attendant vicissitudes. It won’t be easy and may not be quick — but Mrs Banda will need to development new and effective strategies to deal with these issues for the immediate, intermediate and long term economic benefit of Malawi.

Mutharika’s arrogant impudence towards donors resulted in our losing the Millennium Challenge compact with the United States, in addition. That compact would have revamped our electricity generation and supply. How does Malawi improve her trade and export position when manufacturers and processors of export commodities have to deal with frequent power and water outages? How can good personal hygiene, which helps keep people away from hospitals, be maintained in highly populated towns and cities when stoppages of running water are the norm? How can hospitals properly treat patients when they also have to cope with electricity outages, water and drug shortages? One hopes that Mrs. Banda’s immediate priorities include the regaining of the Millennium Compact deal with the US and starting to look for similar agreements that will address the running water distribution network in towns and cities.

The Cabinet, Presidential Staff and Parliament

One of the most disturbing aspects of President Banda’s otherwise magnificent swearing-in ceremony on April 7th, 2012 was the spectre of Mutharika-era cabinet ministers and his DPP MPs publicly cheering, almost falling over themselves, to physically and loudly demonstrate their loyalty to the new President. As much as this was a hopeful sign for unity, cooperation and forgiveness; it was also worrying for the extent to which it revealed the chameleonic nature of some of our politicians. These are the same individuals who spent the last three years publicly heaping scorn upon, and mongering hate for, Mrs. Banda to serve Bingu wa Mutharika. He had dismissed her from her functions such as her ambassadorship for safe motherhood and the fight against Malaria. Mutharika awarded these to his newly-wedded wife at an illegal salary of K26, 000,000 in the last two years alone. There is no doubt that Mutharika would have dismissed Mrs. Banda as Vice President outright if there had been a constitutional way of doing so, which there isn’t.

Only the day before Mrs Banda’s inauguration, April 6th, some members of Mutharika’s cabinet shamelessly paraded themselves before TV cameras to deny, against all international news reports that Mutharika had died — when they knew very well that indeed he had. This was a gambit clearly designed to bypass the Constitution and illegally enthrone the defunct dictator’s brother, Arthur-Peter Mutharika, to the presidency as Bingu wa Mutharika had wished. It amounted to a coup d’etat. Fortunately, the military stepped in and the coup plotters quickly accepted sober reality, with the result that we can now proudly proclaim Joyce Banda as the new President of the Republic of Malawi.

As she forgives these people and welcomes their cooperation, President Banda should not forget that a few short weeks ago one minister, Yunus Mussa, publicly slaughtered goats as a sacrifice for the long life of dictator Bingu wa Mutharika. This is the same minister who was behind the injunctions bill which allows Members of parliament to cross the floor seeking positions and monetary fortunes from the government side with impunity. A few short days ago another minister, Patricia Kaliati, whose responsibilities were supposed to be to inform and civic-educate the public, took the main speaking role at the treasonous April 7th. press conference denying dictator Mutharika’s death so that his brother may be enthroned. Before then, she used her position as Information Minister to insult, threaten and lie to the people of Malawi. Mutharika-era presidential spokespersons Nick Dausi and Hetherwick Ntaba have suddenly become conspicuous by their silence. Ntaba surpassed Joseph Goebbels in his apologiae for the dictator’s oppressive actions and Dausi specialized in a grandiose, pretentiously bombastic style of verbiage to serve the dictator’s purposes and those of the dictator’s brother, Arthur-Peter Mutharika.

The behaviour of these people was not a credit but a debit to the gravitas of the presidency. Mrs. Banda would do well to keep them at arm’s length. They are damaged goods and may soil her presidency the way they soiled Mutharika’s. It is now being mentioned that some Members of Parliament have already announced their immediate defection from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to President Banda’s People’s Party (PP). There is something wrong with the bodypolitik of Malawi when MPs can so easily sport one set of political colours yesterday and wear new ones the moment a new President from a different political party takes over today. It should not be so easy. Indeed, for people who publicly skewered Mrs. Banda when she was ostracised by Mutharika to suddenly now start singing her praises seconds after her swearing in as President is a revolting spectacle. The example and message sent to Malawi’s children and future generations is that there are neither morals nor principles in our politics; only crassness and greed. It is a disturbing message and puts the country’s political system to utter disgrace. Her Excellency may permit it; but should not accept it by rewarding this behaviour.

The Flag, Bad Laws, the Universities and the State Broadcaster

The pliant Mutharika Parliament, dominated by his DPP, summarily replaced Malawi’s beautiful heritage flag by a new one which resembles the doodling of a Standard One pupil. If the sudden support of DPP MPs must be used, let it be used for good causes. Let it be used to immediately reverse the decision which gave us this grotesque flag and restore our heritage flag. Let it be used to reverse all other bad laws passed by the Mutharika dictatorship such as the injunctions law; the Police law; Section 46 which impinges on the media’s ability to publish, and all other laws which are repugnant to our democratic Constitution.

Let it be used to amend the University of Malawi Act so that no President in future will again interfere with academic freedom at public institutions of higher learning as Mutharika did at great cost to our children and the nation at large in regards to the University of Malawi. Let it be used to reform the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation to make it truly a public broadcaster reflecting the political, cultural and demographic diversity of Malawi, rather than a state broadcaster, which it has been under dictator Mutharika, reflecting the views of his regime and spreading hate against those holding contrary views. Let those who have used our public and state institutions to promote dictatorship, partisanship and hatred – and thus abused their public positions of trust – be made accountable for their actions and, where appropriate, be prosecuted to the full extent that the law allows. Similarly, let those who abused the Anti-Corruption Bureau as an instrument of oppression against the political opponents of the dictator be similarly brought to account for their actions.

By doing this, President Banda will not only be righting things for Malawi in the short and immediate terms; she will also be telegraphing an important message to future political leaders and public servants. She will be saying to them: have ethics, have democratic tolerance towards those of different political views, do not abuse your office for partisan reasons, respect the Constitution of Malawi whatever the orders of your superiors might be, and shape up.

Congratulations once again, Madame President. May you have a great presidency and may you live long and prosper!

*Ambuje Che Tom Likambale is a Malawian writer based in Canada

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