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US as well as institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, all of whom had either frozen or withdrawn aid altogether to the country.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?


Levi Kabwato

Levi Kabwato

@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.

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