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Will Banda’s international ‘success’ be her downfall?

Malawi’s president, Joyce Banda, has been somewhat of a revelation ever since she assumed office in April 2012 following the death of then president, Bingu wa Mutharika. At the time, Malawi was facing all manner of problems — food, fuel and forex shortages — symbolised by long queues at shops and at service stations.

Add Mutharika’s growing authoritarianism to the mix and in Malawi you could see a kind of crisis-ridden Zimbabwe rebirthed, only difference being that the former had not the social and economic stamina to withstand, nay, delay the impending collapse.

The whole episode itself of Mutharika’s death was shrouded in great controversy and painful national anxiety as attempts to disregard the succession provisions in the constitution were made by Mutharika loyalists. Fortunately, sanity prevailed and Banda became president.

Getting Malawi to work again was her immediate priority and she quickly tried to restore the strained relations with donor countries like the UK and US as well as institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, all of whom had either frozen or withdrawn aid altogether to the country.

Malawi is, of course, one of those countries that are constantly quoted in statistics on poverty, disease and general underdevelopment. The country has had it all — low quality of life, high child and maternal mortality rates, malaria and HIV/Aids being the most obvious.

I’m always fascinated by the conversations I have with fellow passengers on both in-bound and out-bound flights between either Blantyre or Lilongwe and Johannesburg: “How can such a beautiful country, with such a warm-hearted people be so plagued with this devastating cocktail of afflictions and be ill-governed at the same time?” ”It could be worse,” I always respond.

Under Banda, the narrative of a ”new Malawi” has sought to challenge some of these perceptions, confront them at least. Last May, in her maiden state of the nation address as president, she quoted Martin Luther King Jr and declared that she too had a dream.

“Yes, I also have a dream. I see a Malawi where her citizens enjoy their freedom, dignity and a sense of pride. Yes, I see Malawians maximise their capacity to realise their social, political and economic empowerment,” she said in part.

It is a theme she would later take to the United Nations, telling the General Assembly: “The people of Malawi have made a decisive choice: they have chosen democracy, they have chosen peace and they have chosen to work together to realise their destiny. It is my people’s courage and determination that has taken me into the presidency, and which we will now apply to our national development.”

The president has also chosen to apply IMF policies and adhere to strict international conditions set by key donors. For instance, in order to reopen aid channels, the IMF demanded that Malawi devalues its currency by at least 40%. Mutharika had refused to devalue the Kwacha for a while, citing the adverse impact this would have on the ordinary Malawian.

And this is precisely what happened in the aftermath of the devaluation, prices of commodities rose exponentially and most people could only watch as their buying power disappeared, almost instantly. Needless to say, not many Malawians are amused.

At the beginning of the year, mass demonstrations took place to register disaffection with president Banda’s administration. That most Malawians invoked the memory of the historical July 2011 mass demonstrations ahead of the January mass action expresses the great discomfort they could be feeling towards their new leader.

Despite all this, president Banda this past week received an honorary PhD recognising her efforts in reviving Malawi’s economy.

The PhD, conferred by South Korea’s Jeonju University, marks yet another international affirmation of the overwhelming confidence in Joyce Banda’s presidency. It follows, for example, high-profile visits to Malawi by former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, billionaire philanthropist Melinda Gates and more recently, IMF chief, Christine Lagarde. Other awards and appearances in established international media have almost become routine for her too.

Interestingly, these gestures also highlight the growing disparity between Banda’s domestic and international obligations and expectations. It is a kind of disparity that has resulted in Malawi having a president who is, arguably, more popular and adored abroad than she is locally.

Could it be plausible, then, to suggest that much of president Banda’s ”success” in international eyes is a result of her being Africa’s second female president and also, her not being Mutharika as opposed to actually having achieved something significant for the people of Malawi? They may seem unfair remarks to make but read this from one commentator:

“A sensitive African leader would put her people ahead of her obsession for international recognition. Yet … Banda, buoyed by the approval she is receiving from the international community is globe-trotting while her country is collapsing under the full weight of problems, many of them arising from cluelessness of the administration and its brutal subservience to directives of the IMF and its crew of western shareholders which in many cases only serve to address the selfish interests of the Washington consensus.”

It is the sort of angry refrain you’re likely to hear on the streets of Lilongwe or Blantyre quite often but to be fair, the commentator who made this one is a former Mutharika adviser, if not apologist.

It is not yet very clear what political effect these and other international affirmations will have on Banda’s presidency ahead of the 2014 general elections. For now, though, it would seem Malawians prefer a president who is grounded at home, making Malawi work again as she promised to do and not basking in the glow of international glory.

But then, how many politicians do you know who actually keep their promises?


  • @LeviKabwato is a social and political commentator. His other areas of interest include media management, journalism, media freedom, freedom of expression in cyberspace, creative writing and radical philosophy.


  1. GrahamJ GrahamJ 5 February 2013

    Er, Helen Zille?

  2. MrK MrK 5 February 2013

    So the first thing Joyce Banda did was to reverse these policies, and budget support was resumed. Of course, she also pushed through the devaluation of the Malawi Kwacha, with predictable results for the purchasing power of the Malawian consumer.

    Read more on Geoffrey Sachs comments on what happened in Malawi. Mind you, he of course is still not conversant with the smaller details of Malawi’s political and economic history (see my comments).

    “How Malawi Fed It’s Own People”

  3. K Mzala K Mzala 6 February 2013

    All politicians are liars my friend. They are all the same. Never put your faith in a politician

  4. Lennon Lennon 6 February 2013

    What bothers me is that IMF wasn’t interested in “helping” Mutharika because he refused to de-value their currency. He then mysteriously dies and the first thing that Banda does is to de-value the currency to get the IMF loan.

    I smell a rat.

  5. lesego lesego 6 February 2013

    first thing you do is to go to your collonisers UK,USA etc n then open up more debt at the IMF n we call this victory ? imperialism will never end here in africa while we still carry a begging bowl at the hands of the imperialists.

  6. impedimenta impedimenta 6 February 2013

    And now the floods. Joyce Banda’s leadership will be tested with these.

    I hope she will be able to balance international recognition with action that directly helps the people. Isn’t this what her position requires? The electorate should not have to push for this. It should be a given. Come to the table, President Banda!

  7. MrK MrK 6 February 2013

    1) What happened to Malawi? The IMF and World Bank happened, the same as any impoverished country in Africa.

    You cannot rearrange your economy to fit the profitability of foreign shareholders in transnational corporations, and expect the local people to benefit ‘somehow’. Trickledown doesn’t work.

    And this is President Bingu wa Mutharika’s crime. He broke with the IMF /World Bank, and worse than that, he showed IMF policies to be abject failures, compared to the common sense of actually supporting ordinary Malawian farmers. Even though the transnational corporations which now control American agriculture receive billions of dollars in taxpayer support, supporting Malawian farmers with a little fertilizer support is akin to worshipping Satan, it was supposed to (gasp) distort market mechanisms, and ‘create dependency’ on behalf of the farmer.

    Also, it led to the greatest harvest in years. And showing the IMF to be agenda driven fools is a capital offense.

    But he did worse. Even though ‘there are no economic sanctions against Zimbabwe’, President Mutharika committed the capital offense of extending a $20 million line of credit to Zimbabwe so they could buy some of Malawi’s new maize surplus.

    For this, EU support to Malawi was suspended after the machinations of one Brigadier General Geoffrey van Orden, head of the ‘Zimbabwe Vigil’ and also MEP for the East of England.

  8. Levi Levi 6 February 2013

    @GrahamJ – What’s up with Zille?

    @MrK – I’m with you and agree. But there appears to be revisionism when late Mutharika is brought up, that can’t do Malawi any good!

    @K Mzala – true! But who else do we have?

    @Lennon – The truth will out some day, if there is anything to the contrary of what has been reported that is.

    @Lesego – Some of these umbilical cords are hard to break. They come with serious political consequence – think Sankara, Cabral etc.

    @Impedimenta – The President is the only person missing from the table.

  9. -Sterling Ferguson -Sterling Ferguson 6 February 2013

    @Lesego, the US doesn’t want to be in Malawi and be burdened with this country social and economic problems. The people in Africa are coming to Washington begging because they are so poor. Talk is cheap because President Banda is doing all she can with what she has to work with.

  10. Tauya Tauya 7 February 2013

    Perhaps, as Mr K so understatedly points out, Banda’s “international success’ is the adoption of neo-liberalism. She certainly is not the only African or woman president to do so. The outcome, as we all know, is not the downfall of the President, she will get loads of international support and teargas to maintain her hold on power. Rather the downfall of an economy and society, already down and nearly out.The only Presidents who are booted out are those who do not accept the hegemony. Why is this even a debate??

  11. MrK MrK 7 February 2013

    @Levi, what is the revisionism about Malawi?

    @SterlingFerguson, the US isn’t in Malawi because ‘they care’, they are in Malawi because Malawi exports uranium, among other minerals. In fact, whenever some aid industry individual describes Malawi as ‘one of the poorest countries in Africa’, think of them saying ‘Malawi is one of the poorest uranium exporters in Africa’. That should alert people to the fact that a) they are robbed of the value of their natural resources and b) they don’t need one cent of ‘donor aid’.

    Remember that donor aid is not about charity or need, it is about control. They controlled Bingu wa Mutharika by suspending budget support for the Malawian government.

  12. Levi Levi 8 February 2013

    @MrK – The revisionism on Mutharrika i.e when he dumped Muluzi’s UDF (1st term) he was a good president and post-2009 (2nd term) he became a, well, “bad president”.

  13. MrK MrK 12 February 2013

    Hi Levi,

    One of the ‘transgressions’ former President Bingu wa Mutharika committed was having good relations with Zimbabwe.

    For this, his budget support was suspended. See this article/blogpost from 2009:

    ” The petition was handed over by Geoffrey Van Orden, MEP for the East of England, who received it at a ceremony last month to mark the Vigil’s seventh anniversary.

    “Our argument is that SADC countries have been derelict in their duty to Zimbabwe. Why should countries which support Mugabe’s tyranny receive money from EU taxpayers? ”

    Brigadier Geoffrey van Orden is a lifelong careerist in British Army Intelligence. Roy Bennett, whom the MDC wanted to see as minister of Agriculture, spent his formative years in the Rhodesian Selous Scouts, one of the most notorious units in the conflict.

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