Levi Kabwato
Levi Kabwato

Is this finally Malawi’s Lazarus moment?

It was Eric Arthur Blair who once remarked; “At 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” Well, Malawi turned 48 on July 6 and for a country that has taken so much battering pre and post-independence perhaps it, too, has the face it deserves at that age. Yet, for just more than 100 days now – since the death of Bingu wa Mutharika – it would appear as if the country had been given some political botox.

New president, Joyce Banda, has hit the ground running, instituting a number of major reforms that have seen the restoration of aid facilities as well as the confidence of many a Malawian about the future of the country. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), the US and the UK have all resumed aid to Malawi, taking the country back towards some semblance of stability.

In presiding over these developments, however, Banda has also courted controversy.

To begin with, the devaluation of the Kwacha against major currencies, while the right move, has hit the ordinary Malawian very hard as prices of basic commodities have skyrocketed and salaries shrunk further. And, although these very same basic commodities are now abundantly available on store shelves, it is not everyone who is able to access them. This may, indeed, send a confusing message to those Malawians who have lost much of their buying power as a direct result of the devaluation.

What has also sent a confusing message to the wider public and international community is the refusal by Malawi to host the AU Summit over the controversy surrounding Sudan president Omar al-Bashir who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Banda’s reasons for threatening to arrest al-Bashir were unambiguous – to please European and American donors in exchange for aid. No single word on the alleged crimes committed by al-Bashir himself nor the legitimacy of the ICC itself.

In fact, what that action actually showed is that Malawi is not a country that has developed sufficient confidence to independently assert herself within the region and greater continent, a country that is still at peace with being bullied and ordered around.

On the occasion of Malawi’s 47th Independence celebrations last year, late president, Bingu wa Mutharika, advised his people to be proud of the nation’s success thus far, especially under his reign. He even went as far as saying Malawians should don “success jackets” as a sign of their proud association with the country. At that time, many citizens were spending up to three or four days in fuel queues, electricity cuts of up to 10 hours a day were routine, water shortages were acute, forex was scarce. Life in Malawi was a total nightmare.

As if to convince himself of the lie of national success he was peddling, Mutharika also changed the national flag, altering the rising sun on the independence flag to a full sun that, he alleged, symbolised the success of the country under his watch. A former minister of (mis?)Information, Leckford Thotho, defended the flag change saying, “it makes sense now to have the full sun symbolising the development that has taken place. For how long are we going to remain at dawn?”

What the minister – and the Mutharika regime at large – had missed is that a nation is always in a state of continual becoming and the sun is always rising because that indicates promise, progress and a quest to improve on what was built yesterday as a nation strives for perfection. Hence, to be at dawn – as the independence flag reflected – is to give hope for the day, it is to indicate the potential within all Malawians, young and old, it is to show a promise of things to come.

Two weeks after Mutharika’s “success” speech, the country exploded as angry masses took to the streets to protest at the deteriorating democratic culture, rising cost of living and food shortages. Over the two days of protest, at least 20 people lost their lives. (A Commission of Inquiry report can be downloaded here). The Mutharika regime said the dead were criminals who had been victims of effective policing on the days they were in the streets.

And that had become Mutharika’s attitude, that anyone who is not his praise-singer, sycophant or stooge should be treated with condescending sneer. Perhaps no other person than Joyce Banda herself perfectly encapsulates this point.

Beyond the irony of Banda now having to clean the proverbial mess that Mutharika left and in her bringing back Malawi to life, how the narrative of the new president’s success is constructed will be of key interest. This is important because Malawi has experienced this Lazarus moment before – a moment of great awakening that presents such a great promise for the future. Even Bingu wa Mutharika too, in his first term in office, once stirred this moment but we came to know, eventually, that his version of national success was actually a delusion.

Could it be that history has marked the same fate for Joyce Banda?

This year’s 48th Independence celebrations were rather low-key, something attributed to lack of funds by the government. However, celebrations marking Banda’s 100 days in office were high-profile and drew mixed reactions from Malawians.

It is her own assessment of the 100 days that is rather telling; “I don’t think it is fair to say that there is a dent in these 100 days. I think that Malawians and my government need to be congratulated for making those bold decisions that today we don’t have fuel queues, we have at least forex [foreign exchange] in the banks, we are getting drugs [medicines] and we will get much, much, more,” she told Voice of America.

Sure enough, Banda’s supporters will agree. The sceptics Will argue that these 100 days are rather celebrations of 100 days without Bingu wa Mutharika and point out that the biggest triumph of Malawi’s new president is that she is not the man whom she replaced and leave it at that. When both the euphoria and hangover of Mutharika’s departure from office subside, the sceptics will go on, the same challenges and frustrations that bred the July 20 demonstrations may become apparent once more, and perhaps with much more devastating consequence this time around.

In two years’ time, the country turns 50. Incidentally, 2014 is also an election year. Joyce Banda may have to order a lot more political botox to sustain this Lazarus moment and more significantly, to give one of the world’s poorest countries the face it truly deserves at 50.

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