How do Malawians see the first 100 days of their new president, Joyce Banda? Mixed reactions, reports Lameck Masina from Lilongwe.
UPON TAKING OFFICE ON 7 April, President Joyce Banda promised to put the country’s economy back on track. The economy had been plagued by shortages of fuel and foreign currency after Western donors cut their aid due to a conflict with former President Bingu wa Mutharika, who died on 5 April.
Foreign aid accounts for roughly 40 per cent of Malawi’s development budget. The donors had cited “poor economic policies” as reason for the cut. However, the IMF had other reasons. It disallowed Malawi from drawing down on its $79m extended credit facility after President Mutharika refused IMF promptings to further devalue the local currency (the kwacha), arguing that it would hurt the poor most through the attendant commodity price increases.
Another bone of contention was Mutharika’s refusal to arrest the Sudanese president, Omar Al-Bashir, when he attended a COMESA summit in October last year in the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and Mutharika’s refusal to arrest him angered America’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), causing it to suspend its $350m funding for Malawi’s fragile energy sector. The MCC also cited the way Mutharika handled anti-government demonstrations last July in which 19 people were killed.
Other donors, including Britain, cut their aid in reaction to the deportation of the British envoy to Malawi, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, whose leaked cable to London described Mutharika as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.
In an effort to mend the broken relations with the donors, the new president, Joyce Banda, 62, moved swiftly to address their concerns. She entered into talks with the IMF and quickly devalued the kwacha by 50%.
Her new broom has since swept away the police chief, Peter Mukhito, who was blamed for the deaths of 19 anti-government demonstrators. Also gone are the Central Bank governor, Perks Ligoya, and the head of the state-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, Bright Malopa. Banda appointed a cabinet that included representatives of all the main opposition parties as well as members of Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party. It was a move that analysts said was aimed at uniting the country.
Buoyed by her initial success, Banda appeared to have taken one step too far to win back the MCC funding when she vowed to arrest President Bashir if he attended an African Union Summit which Malawi was hosting in July.
This stung the AU into issuing a strong statement condemning her decision. The AU took a collective decision in 2009 not to cooperate with the ICC over the arrest of Bashir, a decision that binds all AU member countries. For Banda to try to step out of line, she was directly courting the ire of her African colleagues. And it came swiftly, forcing her government to announce in early June that it would no longer host the AU summit, and Banda will not attend the rescheduled summit that will now take place at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa.
As a reward for thumbing her nose at the AU, Banda got the $350m MCC funding restored by the USA in late June.
Back in April, in her first speech in parliament, Banda had announced that her government would repeal, with urgency, laws deemed to infringe upon the human rights of citizens, including the law that criminalises homosexuality.
She told the MPs: “In the 2012/13 fiscal year, we will continue with the law reform programme. Some laws which were duly passed by this august house and were referred to the Malawi Law Commission will be repealed. These include Section 46 of the Penal Code [which restricts press freedom] … and the provision regarding the indecent and unnatural acts contained in Sections 153 and 156 of the Penal code [which criminalises homosexuality].” Her desire to please Western donors appears to know no bounds, and has actually surprised many in Malawi. Harold Lipenga, a taxi operator in the commercial capital Blantyre, says: “I think she is too much in a hurry. Malawians might end up regretting some of the things she has hurriedly committed herself to do. She should go a little bit slowly.”
Lipenga based his observation on the issue of homosexuality, saying President Banda should know that Malawi is a sovereign state with its own cultural values, different from that of donor countries. “I believe the laws of individual countries are specific and unique,” says Lipenga. “While we need these donors, I think we should take into account that we are a sovereign state and she must respect that sovereignty even as she rushes headlong to appease the donors.”
Friday Jumbe, the former finance minister who is now the leader of the opposition United Democratic Front, describing Banda’s 100 days in office, said: “We understand that things have been very sudden and people have not recovered from the shock. I don’t think she has recovered from the shock either, and because we are in a state of shock, the decision-making faculties tend to be disturbed too, and so I don’t expect all the decisions she is making to be necessarily good for everybody.”
What is appreciated though, Jumbe said, “is that in these 100 days there has been a semblance of peace in Malawi. There has been no harassment by the government, no harassment by policemen, and there is hope that the rule of law will prevail.”
The opposition leader, however, added cautiously: “Politicians change suddenly. I hope she will not change. But so far, I would think that there is hope.”
Jumbe has some concerns though. He is worried that some of Banda’s words don’t match her government’s actions. “She said she would liberalise the airwaves of the state broadcaster, but I see the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation is still focusing only on government programmes. Although the government says we should open up the airwaves to the opposition parties, they have not opened up.”
Some Muslim leaders are also not too happy with some of Banda’s decisions. A Catholic, they have accused her of favouring Christians in public appointments. They cited the recent appointment of board members of the Malawi Electoral Commission which, they claimed, was dominated by the Christian clergy.
The president has also earned the ire of the Civil Servants Trade Union, which says it is not comfortable with a 21% salary increment announced by Banda’s government. The Union thinks the hike is not commensurate with the rate of devaluation, which has doubled prices of basic goods and services on the market. The union has therefore threatened to take unspecific actions if the government fails to take the increment to 47%.
David Ngomba, the projects officer of the Consumer Association of Malawi, thinks it is too soon to judge Banda after 100 days in office, “but from the little she has done, there is hope. Certainly we must be mindful of the fact that she inherited a mess from the previous government, so the plans she is putting in place, in order to rescue the country from the mess, are things which give us hope.”
As expected, donors, including the IMF, have commended “the bold actions” taken by Banda. Christine Largarde, the IMF managing director, said: “I met the president, I found her extremely uplifting. She is a woman of courage and determination. She is changing the perception that the world has about Malawi… We discussed the support that the IMF can give to the country, and also ways of encouraging other countries to support Malawi, to move the country forward.”