The Joyce Banda Malawians know

It is becoming apparent that Malawian presidents have one image for the world and a separate one, mostly negative, for the people who actually voted them into power.

The fourth President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, is among this year’s List of 100 Global Thinkers published by Foreign Policy Magazine. She was chosen for “stepping in – and up – to fix a broken country” after her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika died suddenly of a heart attack in April this year. She’s in there at Number 22, well behind Paul Ryan, after George Soros and miles ahead of the other Africans on the list, Chinua Achebe and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

FP rightly points out that President Banda faces a mammoth task in trying to stabilise the faltering economy inherited from Mutharika: “Her work is cut out for her. So far, however, all signs suggest Banda could become a new model for African leadership – shedding the strongman syndrome and getting down to business to help the poor. To prove it she has cut her own salary by 30 per cent and put her predecessor’s $12 million presidential jet and most of his fleet of 60 luxury cars up for sale.”

As I have argued before, President Banda needed to do this, she had no option. These were necessary measures if the country was to regain the confidence of the donor community that deserted the country en masse due to her predecessor’s poor human rights record, bad governance and poor diplomatic relations (swapping diplomatic expulsions with the UK, but establishing new ties with countries like Armenia and Mongolia).

Reversing Mutharika’s policies was the most straightforward and predictable task before her. Anyone coming into her position would have needed to do it; the main challenge for President Banda was to come up with her own policies, and this remains a challenge. Apart from the 30 per cent pay cut she and her deputy have taken, lavish government spending and misplaced priorities are still endemic in Malawi.

Local media are packed with headlines about various civil society groups, faith organisations and NGOs asking Banda and her administration to reduce unnecessary spending and to get their priorities right. Most of these pleas have been welcomed with rebuttals and excuses from the government. Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a local coalition of over 100 civil society organisations recently observed that the President’s endless travel “mocks” the pay cut.

The organisation’s director, Dalitso Kubalasa told a local daily newspaper, The Daily Times that the pay cut was “not good enough,” adding: “We at MEJN advocated for an immediate reciprocal cut on their subsistence allowances especially for cabinet ministers, for the austerity measures’ symbolism be complete and truly make a difference.”

Most local analysts initially saw the pay cut as a political gesture and not a fiscal measure, aimed at reflecting the country’s hard economic times. It is crucial to have in mind that while steadying the staggering economy may be President Banda’s priority, she also has her sights on 2014 elections. Therefore, the 30 per cent pay cut is also aimed at the electorate, the majority of whom would happily accept the symbolic gesture without questioning what it actually means.

The news of the pay cut also got international media excited. Unsurprisingly, almost all of these news organizations saw the pay cut as a refreshing story given that the majority of news about African presidents is about greed and corruption. This meant that there was a lack of proper analysis from the international media. A Google search on the subject indicates that 17 of the first 20 results are from international media organizations.

It’s thus surprising that Banda made it onto FP’s list based on the reasons they provided. FP’s point that President Banda could shed the continent’s “strongman syndrome” and get “down to business to help the poor,” clearly shows that FP have arrived at their conclusions largely based on international media reports, that do not use local reporters.

It is becoming apparent that dual personality is an emerging trend among Malawi presidents. Mutharika is arguably much more revered elsewhere than he ever was in Malawi. Steven Sharra, a Malawian blogger, set out this argument in the aftermath of Mutharika’s death, asking: “Was the Bingu Africa saw the Bingu Malawians Knew?” The British government seems to have sensed the dual personality pattern. They recently acknowledged many areas in which Banda has had notable achievements thus far. Yet they also pointed out that there are still many issues that need sorting out, including “domestic accountability.”

Banda has certainly got the knack of playing it to the donors, as she has on the issue of homosexuality. She got the international community excited that she was repealing the laws while at home she’s stayed mum. Amnesty International got excited about it while Banda’s justice minister denied it at home.

This is something FP has clearly missed or chosen to ignore. Had FP had a researcher in Malawi for this piece, which I doubt they did, they could have come up with a more accurate conclusion that reflects the actual reality in Malawi.

I am happy that President Banda is on the list and I believe she deserves it, more so than many others listed. Mutharika left the country’s economy in tatters and it was a nation of people without hope. Joyce Banda’s elevation gave people hope, both Malawians and those in the international community. But I disagree with the grounds of her inclusion – it’s flawed. Perhaps it would have been better to concentrate of global achievements, it is a list of global thinkers after all.

Further Reading

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At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.