Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Malawi's Banda of sisters

Joyce Banda was sworn in on the weekend as president of Malawi – and just the second female head of state of an African country. Banda was the country’s vice president and was promoted after 78-year-old president Bingu wa Mutharika died of cardiac arrest on Friday. Banda took the oath of office before parliament in the capital Lilongwe on Saturday as a threatened power succession struggle never eventuated. Banda and Mutharika were former party colleagues and Banda was promoted to vice president in 2009. (photo: AFP)

Mutharika and Banda ran together for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in the 2009 elections but fell out just two months after they assumed office when the President started positioning his 72-year-old brother and Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mutharika to succeed him on retirement in 2014. Mutharika expelled her from the party. Banda and other disgruntled politicians from the DPP and other parties launched the Peoples' Party. However Malawi’s constitution prevented Mutharika from sacking her as vice president.

Matters worsened in 2010 after former colonial power Britain slashed $4.5m from its annual $33m aid budget when Malawi bought a $13.26 million presidential jet. Britain said its aid criteria were based on the three principles of government commitment to poverty reduction, sound public financial management and human rights. Malawi relies on aid for 40 percent of its budget and the country is desperate undeveloped. Only one in 20 of Malawi's population has access to electricity while the rest depend on charcoal and paraffin for cooking and lighting respectively.

When Mutharika died, the country’s information minister Patricia Kaliati said Banda could not take over as head of state because she was in opposition. However strong calls from the US, EU and Britain and stopped a resistance movement to her ascension from gaining any traction. One of Banda's first actions was to sack Kaliati.

The 61-year-old Banda is no relation to Malawi’s founding president Hastings Banda who achieved independence for what was then Nyasaland from Britain in 1963. The earlier Banda chose the name Malawi for the country based on a corruption of Lake Maravi. Following a typical African post-colonial trajectory, Banda turned Malawi into a one party state and became immensely wealthy. A pro-Western proxy, his power and support faded after the end of the Soviet Union and by 1993 the internal pressure for democratic change was intense.

In the 1994 elections Hastings Banda was defeated by Elson Bakili Muluzi. Muluzi proved just as corrupt as his predecessor and siphoned off millions from the sale of Malawi's food reserves. Despite this Muluzi was re-elected in 1999 and tried to change the constitution to run a third time in 2004. He was frustrated by parliament, the courts and demonstrations in the street and was forced to stand aside, anointing Mutharika to replace him. Within 12 months Muluzi was apologising for his choice of successor and set himself to run again in 2009.

But an anti-corruption investigation into him in 2008 crippled his campaign and the country’s Electoral Commission and the courts combined to stop him from running again. Mutharika was at the height of his powers having overseen an increase in agricultural production. But the subsidies Mutharika paid to lift harvests could not be sustained after Britain cut its aid budget.

Joyce Banda was one of Mutharika’s earliest ministerial appointments. A single mother and refugee from a violent marriage, she had run several successful businesses before entering parliament in 2004. She quickly proved her mettle rising to become Foreign Affairs minister after just two years in office. She was made deputy for the 2009 election but felt betrayed after Mutharika endorsed his brother as successor.

The role of Peter Mutharika now becomes crucial as Banda attempts to establish her presidential credentials. Mutharika is relatively new to Malawi politics have lived in the US for decades as a teacher of law. He congratulated Banda on her appointment but is likely to become her biggest issue as he becomes DPP leader following his older brother.

His congratulations may be smart politics. Mutharika’s brother’s death was not greatly mourned. As Al Jazeera said, many of Malawi’s 13 million people saw him as an autocrat responsible for an economic crisis precipitated by the British withdrawal of aid. Fixing Malawi’s flailing economy presents a great challenge to Banda. There is plenty of time between now and 2014 for her to become unpopular allowing Mutharika an easy run at bringing the leadership back into the family.

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