12 April 2012

Malawi: Top Ten Tasks for New President

Photo: Travis Lupick
Civil society demonstrations on July 20, 2011, in Blantyre.


While there was a mixed reaction to the death of Bingu wa Mutharika, the ascendancy of Joyce Banda to the highest office in the land has given most Malawians hope that something can at last be done to resolve the country's political, social, judicial and economic crises.

Indeed, there is almost universal consensus about what the new government needs to do.

But it is a daunting task. While there are many other issues to address in future, the top topics in President Banda's in-tray include:

Ending the culture of impunity that saw the country slide towards a police state and led to the deaths of 19 innocent protestors in July last year, the murder of student activist, Robert Chasowa, the firebombings of homes and offices of activists, and the arbitrary arrest and detention of critics of the government - by launching independent investigations and bringing those responsible to book.

Abandoning the much criticised Zero Deficit Budget, which has hurt many Malawians and which was only 'achieved' by unsustainable borrowing from the banks and by introducing punitive taxes on Malawians who were already struggling to put food on the table.

Restoring relations with key donors such as Britain, which were almost ruined by Mutharika's expulsion of the High Commissioner, and the United States, which has suspended its critical US$350 million investment through the Millennium Challenge Corporation in power generation due to the country's slide towards dictatorship. Currently only 2 percent of the rural population has access to electricity and nationwide it is less than 10 percent.

Devaluing the kwacha as recommended by the International Monetary Fund, which would allow the IMF to resume its programme in the country. Mutharika had refused to devalue the kwacha on grounds that devaluation would hit poor Malawians hard.

Repealing the pernicious and anti-constitutional laws that were passed in the last three years, which have violated the rights of Malawians and scared away donors such as Germans. Two bits of legislation that need to be scrapped urgently are the infamous Section 46 of the penal code, which empowers a cabinet minister to ban a publication deemed not to be in the public interest, and the law that bars Malawians from obtaining an ex-parte injunction against government and public officers.

Taking action to demonstrate respect for the separation of powers by halting executive intervention in the activities of the judiciary and ensuring that parliament is once again more than just a rubber-stamp.

Strengthening key constitutional bodies such as the Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Commission so that Malawi develops into a country where institutions are more powerful than individuals.

Declaring Mutharika's directive that anyone who wants to hold a demonstration must pay a deposit of K2 million null and void.

Ensuring that the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) operates as a genuine public broadcaster and not as a mouthpiece for President Banda and her party by guaranteeing that it provides space for opposition parties and civil society, even when they disagree with the new president.

Allowing the Malawi Communications and Regulatory Authority (MACRA) to finally begin handing out licences for independent TV and radio stations - and to ensure that it does so without favour but based on clear criteria.

It is a long list. And President Banda has her work cut out for her. She has already taken some important and correct decisions, including sacking the police chief, the minister of information and the head of MBC as well as holding discussions with bilateral donors and the IMF. All this has been done before her predecessor has even been laid to rest. And yet, she is clearly right not to delay with so much on her plate.

However, it will be difficult. Indeed, Banda herself has fallen foul of the law in her rush to make things better. Few could complain about her decision to sack the MBC boss, who presided over an institution that vilified her and other critics and deified the former president. But according to the Communications Act, only the Board of MBC can appoint a CEO. But hopefully this is no more than an oversight - not the start of another period of rule by presidential decree.

Time will tell - as it will with the legacy of Bingu wa Mutharika. Like everyone, he had his strengths and his weaknesses. And while there were concerns about the direction he was taking the country in his last few years in office, he will certainly be remembered for more than that - particularly for the successes of his first term in office when his government was responsible for making Malawi food secure, boosting economic growth and improving infrastructure.

And now is not the time to judge his legacy. It is time to pay our respects to our 3rd president and to say may his soul rest in eternal peace. And time to work with the new president (and criticise her if she goes astray) to ensure that Malawi resumes its journey towards becoming a truly democratic and open society.

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