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Joyce Banda’s return causes jitters in Malawi

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Joyce Banda’s return causes jitters in Malawi

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Malawi is on tenterhooks, waiting to see if President Peter Mutharika will order the arrest of his predecessor Joyce Banda. Banda returned to her homeland on Saturday after four years of self-imposed exile, immediately hinting that she might make another run for the presidency next year. 

That could be the spark that leads to her arrest. Which in turn could aggravate instability in the impoverished country, which is experiencing popular protests because of economic hardships and allegations of corruption against the Mutharika administration. Mutharika’s government issued an arrest warrant for Banda last July for alleged complicity in the so-called Cashgate scandal during her brief tenure as president between 2012 and 2014.

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Public servants siphoned off billions of kwacha of state funds, some of it by hacking into government computers to create false supply contracts. The state was defrauded of around US$32 million in total, almost 1% of Malawi’s annual GDP, in just six months, according to an independent outside audit.

Banda has always claimed that Cashgate took off under the presidency of her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika – brother of the current incumbent – and that she had nothing to do with it. Most observers believe her but acknowledge that the state looting probably accelerated on her watch. Cashgate and her wider political naivete which it betrayed almost certainly cost Banda the 2014 elections. She then basically left the country in a huff. 

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After her return at the weekend, she hinted to Nyasa Times that she might run for president again in 2019 on her People’s Party (PP) ticket but would only decide after the party’s upcoming national executive committee meeting. Banda made it clear though that she felt Malawi badly needed change. She also insisted she wasn’t afraid of being arrested on the Cashgate corruption charges. 

Whether Mutharika would consider her enough of a political threat to try to disqualify her through those criminal charges is a moot point. One observer familiar with her political career who wished to remain anonymous thought not. He said she was too politically inexperienced to pose a threat to Mutharika.

He noted that Bingu wa Mutharika had only made her his running mate in 2009 to balance his ticket and shore up support among women and her Yao ethnic group. He said Mutharika then sidelined her while he manoeuvred to ensure his younger brother Peter succeeded him as president in 2014.

But the elder Mutharika’s plans were thwarted by fate when he died of a heart attack in office in April 2012. This didn’t immediately end the scheming as Peter and his clique pretended he was still alive. They put him on a plane to Johannesburg supposedly for medical treatment while they plotted to block Banda from succeeding him as demanded by the constitution. 

It was only when the chief of the Malawi Defence Force General Henry Odillo refused to sanction an unconstitutional change of government and stationed guards around Banda’s house that Mutharika and his fellow plotters backed off.

Banda inherited a mess from Bingu wa Mutharika, whose domestic and especially foreign policy had become increasingly erratic. All major donors – Britain, the United States, Germany, Norway, the European Union, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank – had suspended financial aid, mainly because of his threats to democracy. Banda quickly restored relations with them and so the aid taps were reopened.

But her readiness to please the donors may have cost her politically by making her look too pliable to Western interests. In June 2012 her administration refused to host the African Union (AU) summit because the AU had insisted that Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir be given assurances that Malawi would not serve the International Criminal Court arrest warrant against him.

This should have been seen purely as a brave stand on principle. But Banda rather naively told reporters that Malawi would have again lost Western aid had she allowed al-Bashir into the country without arresting him.

Banda also devalued the Malawian kwacha by 33% against the US dollar, acting on the advice of the International Monetary Fund. They said this would address the country’s balance of payments problem by boosting exports and reducing imports. But again Banda’s government made it seem that the real aim was to attract more donor funding. The devaluation led to panic-buying and inflation, also costing her at the 2014 polls.

So, as she and her party contemplate a possible run next year, they will be aware that although she has won elections to Parliament and has served as minister under both former president Bakili Muluzi and Bingu wa Mutharika, her track record as president has not been stellar. They will, unfortunately, also have to contemplate other likely repercussions of a decision to run for the highest office. 

Greg Mills, executive director of the Brenthurst Foundation, who was part of the secretariat to Banda’s Presidential Advisory Committee on the Economy from 2012 to early 2014, gives Banda credit for floating the kwacha and stabilising the economy initially. Then Cashgate exploded and knocked everything off kilter.

He believes she would be unwise to run again, though she still has a role to play. ‘If she runs or signals her intention to do so, the gloves will come off. Given the state Malawi’s economy is in, this would probably be destructive, at least in the short term. If she plays a role outside or above politics, as a king- or queenmaker, for example, then she could play a very constructive role.’

Mutharika’s vice president, the capable and respected economist and former corporate executive Saulos Chilima, could be the king whom Banda could help ‘make’, some suggest. But if Banda does make a run for it herself, one would hope that the Southern African Development Community (SADC) leaders would turn some screws on Mutharika to ensure he doesn’t arrest her, as some observers fear he will, to thwart her ambition.

SADC already stands accused of doing too little or nothing to stop the presidents of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Madagascar from using trumped-up charges to disqualify their rivals in elections this year. Instead of hiding behind the spurious rationale that such legal matters are sovereign, it’s high time SADC saw them for what they really are – just another disguised form of election rigging.

Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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