A year of Madam Banda
Johannesburg – The past week marked the first anniversary of President Joyce Banda’s tenure as Malawi’s Head of State following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika on April 6, 2012.
President Banda, a one-time ally of the late President Mutharika who served as Vice President under the latter, has – like any other leader – drawn mixed reviews on her performance.
The last days of President Mutharika were beset by civil strife, a diplomatic tiff with Western countries, controversy on gay rights issues, and economic troubles in Malawi.
President Banda had her plate full when she took over, and the verdict is still out on whether or not she has what it takes to move Malawi forward.
Blessings Binali, a shop assistant in Johannesburg, South Africa gives President Banda the benefit of the doubt.
“Things have changed somewhat in Malawi,” he told The Southern Times. “At least now there (are) no more fuel shortages and people no longer have to spend time in the queues for fuel. However, there are food shortages and the price of a bag of maize has risen from K4000 to K10 000 and this is a serious problem.”
President Banda is “a good woman”, Binali opines. “I think she needs time – say five years – in office in order to make things right. She can do it.”
Another Malawian working in Johannesburg, who wants only to be identified as Phiri, also feels it is too soon to assess President Banda’s capabilities.
“It will take time to undo the wrongs committed by wa Mutharika,” he says.
CAJ news agency quoted Anthony Kasunda of the National Media for Southern Africa, which clashed repeatedly with the President Mutharika administration, saying there was a “continuation of policies pursued by the previous government”.
“What has changed is the rhetoric from political players,” he said.
Madam Banda is only Africa’s second female Head of State, and she was quick to make her presence felt when she entered office.
Some have hailed her for mending relations with donors (Malawi relies on European and American budgetary support for about 40 percent of government spending), while others feel that she should have put equal emphasis on bolstering the self-reliance course that President Mutharika had embarked on.
President Banda cut government spending, sold a Presidential jet and even slashed her own salary, something very few leaders anywhere in the world have ever done.
The bricks started flying, however, when she suspended anti-gay laws in the conservative country.
This was viewed as an attempt to curry favour with the West, after leaders from Britain and the US had indicated they would cut support to African countries that do not recognise same-sex marriages.
Sections 153 and 156 of Malawi's Penal Code criminalise homosexuality, with offenders facing up to 14 years imprisonment, with or without corporal punishment. Section 137A of the Penal Code criminalises “indecent practices between females”, with anyone found guilty liable to five years in prison.
There has also been an outcry over the conditions that have come attached with the resumption of Western aid.
For instance, the IMF tied release of nearly US$150 million to devaluing the kwacha, removing price controls and scrapping the fuel subsidy.
The exchange rate is around K400 to US$1, compared to K167 to US$1 in early 2012.
This has naturally meant ordinary Malawians find themselves with less disposable income.
Critics have also pointed to the sharp decline in economic indicators since President Banda took over. On her watch, the economy grew by 1.8 percent, the lowest Malawi has achieved since attaining Independence from Britain in 1963 and a far cry from the huge growth under President Mutharika.
Others indicate that interest rates have jumped from 13 percent to 25 percent in the past year, while inflation has almost doubled over the past year.
A political columnist, Chisomo Phiri takes a very radical view on President Banda’s tenancy of the top office: impeach her.
“While President Banda and her People’s Party supporters may turn a blind eye to 12 months of obvious and regrettable failure, patriotic Malawians must, in the spirit of nationalism and while safeguarding the rule of law, analyse the Presidency of Joyce Banda and remind her that she holds the Presidency in trust, and at the pleasure of the Malawian population.”
He believes “…President Banda does not deserve more than twelve months in office.”
“What President Banda deserves,” he charges, “for the good of Malawi, is immediate impeachment.”
He continues: “While attracting misguided and unfounded praises from foreigners who take Malawians for fools, President Banda’s Presidency has for the past twelve months continued to haunt the lives of innocent, poor Malawians with unbearably ever-increasingly fuel prices, depleted maize reserves, exorbitant price of the scarce maize, lack of medicines in hospitals corrupt activities and abuse of office.”
The charge sheet, according to Phiri, also includes decriminalisation of homosexuality, “witch-hunting” of opposition and critics, her “globe-trotting”, and “illegal dismissal” of high-ranking government officials.
President Banda herself knows the task at hand is big, but is confident that she can overcome the obstacles.
“It’s heavy,” President Banda reportedly told Nigerian journalists last week. “But I am able to carry it. Why? Because I’m an African woman. An African woman carries heavy loads anyway.
“That’s how we are trained; we are brought up that nothing is unbearable. I use that now, positively. I use that now to have the thick skin that I have, and not fear, and move forward, and push; and push forward.”