By Anneke Meerkotter
If you do a search of Joyce Banda’s speech on May 18 2012, you will find a range of international media articles with headlines such as “Malawi president vows to repeal gay ban” (BBC, Huffington Post); “Malawi to overturn homosexual ban” (Guardian); “Malawi president to repeal gay laws” (Al-Jazeera) or “Malawi’s Banda seeks repeal of gay ban” (South African Independent Newspapers). These headlines do not reflect the truth of Banda’s speech, and unfortunately they completely miss the significance of the occasion. Interestingly, local Malawian newspapers focused on very different aspects of her speech.
Joyce Banda, Malawi’s first female president is one of only three current female presidents in Africa (with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and Monique Ohson-Bellepeau, acting president of Mauritius). On May 18 2012, she gave her first State of the Nation address. Any Malawian will tell you that this was a significant event after Banda replaced the deceased Bingu wa Mutharika in April 2012. Towards the end of the former president’s reign Malawi was in serious trouble, its human rights record had deteriorated dramatically and its economy was in dire straits. Since Joyce Banda stepped in after Mutharika’s death, the country has seen some dramatic changes.
Banda is not your general follow-the-wind or the party type president. She is an independent woman with strong convictions. She is determined to put her stamp on the presidency and to save the country from economic collapse. Banda’s State of the Nation address reflects what many Malawians had been waiting for, a sense of where their new president will lead the country. “It is my view that there is an urgent need in our country to change the way we do things,” says Banda. Right at the start of her speech, she signalled the focus of her administration “to drive a people’s development agenda”. And then, as an indicator of her leadership style, she stated that “we will realise this by exemplifying the values of integrity, honesty, tolerance, selflessness and stewardship within the leadership”. From the rest of her speech, it is clear that this is not mere empty rhetoric.
Banda outlined some of the main problems facing the country, including a foreign exchange shortage, a tobacco industry crisis, fuel shortages, an energy crisis, bad governance, a poor human rights record, unemployment and a diplomatic crisis. In her speech, Banda charted in minute detail her roadmap for economic recovery. Economic recovery is an important issue for the country’s people, who have just seen their currency significantly devalued by Banda.
Banda made some very strong policy points in her address. Under her leadership, the government will seek to “immediately restore the rule of law in this country where impunity will no longer be tolerated”; it will “repeal the oppressive laws” that were passed by her predecessor; it will promote the notion of the public broadcaster as a vehicle for all Malawians, including opposition parties; it will reconstitute the board of the National Initiative for Civic Education; and it will increase the involvement of chiefs in the development agenda. Already Banda has put many of these plans in action.
Banda is well aware that Malawi’s public service is rife with corruption. She tackled this issue head-on throughout her speech – “I am therefore requiring all principal secretaries, chief executives and all public officers who are aware of instances of fraud, embezzlement and misprocurement involving public funds in their institutions or that has come to their knowledge, to bring those matters to my attention as soon as possible. If this information does not reach my office by the 18th of June 2012 and it is later discovered, there will be no sympathy for those involved.” As part of her efforts to “stamp out corruption” she intends to strengthen the anti-corruption bureau and office of the auditor general.
Banda is making some hard choices to bring the economy back on track, including launching a national austerity drive. As part of this drive, she emphasises that government must “listen and lead”. For this reason, she wants to sell or lease the presidential jet – notably quite a distinct style from that of other African leaders who prefer to pimp up the presidential jet instead. She is also planning cuts on the presidential motorcade and all international travel of ministers.
Others might be better placed to comment on Banda’s plans to promote genetic modification in agriculture or the water development programme. No doubt Malawi has major battles to fight, with a large part of its population living on the brink of starvation. Foreigners might also be intrigued by the tourism plans of the new president, which will hopefully improve revenue to this beautiful country. If the press has a broader view of their readers, they would probably also realise that many might be interested in the vast array of economic opportunities suggested by Banda for foreign investment.
Notably, Banda has her finger on the pulse of many important human rights issues, although setting the bar a bit low on some of these. She committed government to a review of “the status of suspects who have been on remand for five years without appearing before court” – unfortunately the urgency of the situation of pre-trial detainees is not fully articulated here. Nevertheless she reaffirmed government’s commitment “to the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and access to justice”.
It is in this part of her speech where Banda listed those laws which are currently under review by the Law Commission, including those criminalising same-sex sexual acts. This is not new information. During the last two years of his tenure, president Mutharika presided over the passing of a range of legislative reforms which advanced censorship and government powers. These laws were widely condemned by the public and led to public protests during 2011. In December 2011, the Malawi Law Commission received a request from the executive to review some of these controversial laws as well as other laws which were criticised by civil society. The laws specified for review were: Sections 46, 137A and 153 to 156 of the Penal Code; Section 10 of the Civil Procedure (Suits by or against government or public officers) Act; Section 35 of the Police Act; and the Local Courts Act. The Section 46 amendment of the Penal Code increased the minister’s powers to ban any publications. Sections 153 to 156 of the Penal Code refer to long-standing provisions which criminalise sexual conduct between men; whilst Section 137A refers to the more recent amendment which criminalised sexual acts between women. These were the laws referred to by Banda in her speech.
It is great that Banda is reaffirming her government’s commitment to this law reform process. However, as President Obama must have realised, it is easy for a president to say that he or she is willing to repeal oppressive laws which criminalise same-sex sexual conduct, but after making such a statement, it takes considerable hard work to convince colleagues and actually reach this objective. Nevertheless, Banda has already shown her resolve to act on her promises. A week after her speech, Banda repealed the Act which amended section 10 of the Civil Procedure (Suits by or against government or public officers) Act, a piece of law which had curtailed legal action against government. We can only wait in anticipation to see what her next move will be.
Anneke Meerkotter is the project lawyer on sexual minorities at the Southern Africa Litigation Centre.