Joyce Banda lost elections because she took people’s goodwill for granted

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Joyce Banda President of Malawi Photo Credit

William Gumede, author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC Recently wrote a piece for The Guardian’s “Comment is Free” on why he thinks “[Barak] Obama has let Africa down.” Unfortunately, there is still a section of Africans who think Obama owes the continent something simply because his father was from Kenya. Yet, Obama is an American and he owes his allegiance to the USA.

Gumede identifies two areas he considers important in understanding Obama policy shortfalls on the continent: security and governance. In the piece he dedicates more time on the earlier point and only a paragraph or two for the latter. It is not clear whether this signifies importance he attaches to these areas but I find both areas equally important, especially governance because he uses Joyce Banda, Malawi’s former president, for his example.

This is not a direct response to Gumede, it is an attempt to correct wrong perceptions within the international community, which Gumede seems to have fallen for, that Joyce Banda somehow lost elections because of external forces or some unexplained reasons but not because Malawians were simply tired of her ways and the conduct of her administration.

Gumede wrote on the eve of the recent first-ever US/ African leaders summit in Washington where 40 African presidents were present. Gumede notices that under Obama’s presidency the USA has ‘neglected’ Africa or has its views ignored. This ‘neglect’, Gumede argues, has exposed African countries to harsh economic policies of International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other things.

You can see the point Gumede is trying to make. Yet, IMF’s “structural adjustment” programmes have for decades wreaked havoc in developing countries for centuries. From Latin America, the former Soviet block to Africa, sad stories of IMF’s disastrous structural adjustments are told. Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism is a recommended reading if you are interested in this subject.

Gumede uses Malawi former president’s (Joyce Banda) electoral loss last May to make his point. He is of the view that Mrs Banda lost the elections because of IMF imposed policies, which made her unpopular to her people; and by implication Barak Obama’s lack of support for leaders such as Mrs Banda was to blame as well.

This is naïve point to say the least. First, leaders do not always fail for lack of resources and availability of resources does not always guarantee good policies for any country. The continent is not short of resource rich countries that have failed to improve plight of their people for various reasons. Angola, Guinea and Democratic Republic of Congo comes to mind.

Joyce Banda inherited a cash-strapped government but it was her policies, corruption cases, lack of transparency and her style of governing that lost her elections, not lack of resources, which the donor community provided to ensure she succeed. Mrs Banda initially had a lot of good will, at home and abroad.

The IMF policy Mr Gumede is referring to is a 49 per cent currency devaluation that Mrs Banda effected once she got into power. Yet, those who followed the election closely and not just from international news headlines will tell you that the currency devaluation was never among campaign issues. In fact, if this was to be the main campaign issue Mrs Banda could have won the elections, possibly with a landslide.

A bit of background will help. Mrs Banda came to power via a constitutional order following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika on 5th April 2012. According to Malawi constitution, a president’s running-mate becomes a president if the president dies or in they are incapacitated.

At the time of Mutharika’s death, Malawi economy was in freefall, following an aid freeze by the country’s major donors and Mutharika’s sour relationship with IMF following his refusal to devalue the country’s currency – Malawi Kwacha. Fuel pumps were dry, foreign currency was scarce. People start to queue even for locally produced products such as sugar.

Thus, it was clear when Mrs Banda took over that gaining donor confidence would be her main priority. It was not a question of whether Mrs Banda would comply with the IMF order to devalue the currency but a question of by how much. The devaluation was way overdue and refusing to devalue it was not helping but hurting the local economy.

The disagreement on devaluation was whether to devalue the currency at once or to do it in phases as Mrs Banda did. The argument for devaluing the currency in phases was to cushion ordinary citizens from the effects of the devaluation. To her credit, Mrs Banda resurrected and steadied the staggering economy she inherited. Malawians understood the extent of the task before her and they were prepared to give her time. She took this goodwill for granted and abused it. This was her downfall.

A cocktail of scandals and high-level corruption in her administration overturned her fortunes. An estimated US $30 was syphoned out of government coffers through loopholes in the government payment system called Integrated Financial Management Information System. Over 70 civil servants and senior members of her cabinet and political party have been arrested on various charges in connection with the scum.

Mrs Banda’s administration was also dodged with mystery surrounding the alleged sale of presidential jet, which until today the public do not know the full details of. Her constant local and international travel at the expense of the struggling Malawians was also a constant nuisance she vehemently refused to reduce when her people asked her to.

These are some of the key issues that hardly registered abroad where Joyce Banda, is much loved and remains a darling. And why not, she made it onto various ‘prestigious’ annual lists of Forbs Magazine and Foreign Policy etc. and spoke at Nelson Mendala’s funeral to the listening and watching world. But her ultimate constituency was Malawi and Malawians paid attention to issues that really mattered.

Mrs Banda came a distant third in the tripartite elections – losing all the three: presidential, parliamentary and local government elections, becoming the first seating president in Malawi to lose elections and only the second in SADC region, following her namesake, Rupiah Banda in Zambia.

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