By Keith Somerville
If the Malawian people were to fill in a report card for the first 100 days of Joyce Banda’s presidency evidence from websites, chat shows, social networks and media coverage would suggest that the main comment would be, “Good but could still do better and needs to work on repeated absences”.
She came to power on a wave of euphoria and relief after the death in office of Bingu wa Mutharika. After a brief and rather bungled attempt by the governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) leaders to block her succession she was sworn in and immediately got to work entrenching her government and both mending fences with donors alientated by Mutharika and putting right some of the wrongs wrought by him at home.
On the whole she has done rather well, wooing donors back and receiving significant aid and budget support pledges, sacking the unpopular police chief, revoking harsh media laws and generally lightening what had been an increasingly heavy and oppressive hand of government. But not all has been good. Inevitably her attempts to win back financial support has involved much foreign travel and her scaling back on police powers has led to some accusations that she is soft on crime.
A rough and ready, but totally unscientific, survey has been reported by the Nyasa Times website. It said that, “Malawians are not united in thinking President Joyce Banda is as good for the country as the international community thinks she is”, citing as evidence public contributions to call-in radio shows or and comments posted on Facebook. The site quotes Rhodes Msonkho, who presents Capital Radio’s News Talk programme as saying this comment by a caller rather sums things up: “To be honest, 100 days has been prosperous, but I think the only issue which the current regime … [must] look into is the issue of security, which people are worried [about]. If I have given her percentage [out of 100] I think 75 [percent] can do”. On Facebook pages concerning Malawi contributors have also expressed doubts about personal security and rising crime levels – the latter being a possible consequence of the severe economic downturn under the last year of Mutharika’s rule. But some Malawians are worried that Banda’s scrapping of a police “shoot-to-kill” policy may have encouraged crime – notably a recent spate of armed robberies. Some have also questioned whether in the midst of an economic crisis her attention to gay rights is appropriate (though it, of course, has pleased donors critical of African states’ attitudes towards gay rights).
Despite this criticism – and one must always take care in accepting social network comments and phone-ins at face value, as they often only represent the views of a small, vocal and dissatisfied minority – Banda was upbeat when she spoke on 11th July about her achievements. She said in Lilongwe that on taking power she had to embark on “a journey to economic recovery” and that “we knew as a nation that it will not be an easy ride”. She also has set out to fight corruption – though opponents in the DPP say this has been more of a settling of scores with enemies who were involved in her expulsion from Mutharika’s party than tackling corruption. But Banda points out in her own defence that her policies – especially restoring good relations with Britain, the EU and other donors, have meant an end to massive queues for fuel, an influx of foreign exchange to buy imports and the ability to buy much-needed drugs for hospitals.
Aid unfrozen and pledges up
Banda’s main achievement has been restoring ties with Britain, Germany, the EU as a whole and the United States. Tens of millions of dollars in aid and budget have been unfrozen and Malawi’s main aid suppliers have promised about $496 million in budget support, an increase of 140 per cent from 2011, when they promised $210 million, according to the Finance Minister, Ken Lipenga. The Banda bridge-building efforts not only plugged the $121m hole in the current budget but enabled Malawi to get increased aid for the next budget year. The IMF has also restored good relations with Malawi and a three year economic support programme has been put together allowing Malawi credit worth the equivalent of $157m in IMF special drawing rights. In June, Britain released $51m to Malawi for budget support and reconstruction. Much of this money will go to the education, health and agriculture sectors. Both the African Development Bank and the World Bank are resuming programmes for Malawi stopped under Banda’s autocratic predecessor.
Media controls relaxed but opposition MPs unhappy
Domestically, Banda moved quickly to scrap Mutharika’s changes to Article 46 of the penal code which had gave the government powers to ban any news “not in the public interest.” The law gave the Information Minister the right to ban publications or broadcasts that he decided were not in the public interest. This had brought forth a howl of protest from Malawian journalists and the Committee to protect Journalists – which then welcomed Banda’s decision to repeal the changes.
While many ordinary Malawians are happy to see a crackdown on corruption in public life and on high profile civil servants (such as the Clerk of Parliament, Matilda Katopola, who is being questioned about her role in a procurement scandal that was worth K86,997 but which had been dropped as too small by the National Audit Office) the DPP has said many of the investigations are Banda’s revenge on political opponents.
But Banda herself has been criticised for her own spending in office – notably on foreign trips. The Malawi Congress Party, which has otherwise been relatively supportive, said that she has been travelling abroad too much as the taxpayers’ expense – including to Britain for the Queens’ Diamond Jubilee celebrations and then on to America. She has also been to South Africa. Banda’s response is that it was vital to improve foreign relations and restore aid.
Politically, Banda’s situation in parliament is interesting, as her small People’s Party lacks an official presence in parliament and so she did not have anything like a majority among other MPs at first. the People’s Party (PP) had few MPs and isn’t officially recognized within parliament, not having In the months following her inauguration over 80 former members of Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and 98 United Democratic Front (UDF) members (including a number of MPs) have applied to join the PP. But Malawi’s parliamentary rules prevent those elected for one party crossing the floor to another without seeking re-election. Recently, a large number of defecting DPP members re-defected to their old party when a seven day deadline was set by the Speaker of the National Assembly before he could invoke Section 65 of the parliamentary law which would have stopped them sitting as MPs for another party.
But it is believed that there are still 41 MPs who could still be affected by Section 65. The leading mabvutojobani website says that, “This kind of flip flopping by the legislators has angered many electorates who say their representatives are taking them for granted”. But mabvutojobani reported that the DPP did stage a walk-out from parliament in protest against the Speaker’s after he refusal to declare vacant 40 seats belonging to MPs who defected to the new governing People’s Party. The DPP leaders who led the walk out, including Peter Mutharika (the late president’s bother and heir apparent) is ironic as the DPP had tried to scrap Section 65 when they were in power so they could win over opposition MPs
The next elections are not due until May 2014 – so the political merry-go-round will keep spinning until then – no doubt further weakening public respect for the country’s less than principled politicians and legislators.