Supporters of democracy and women's rights have good reason to celebrate the peaceful succession in Malawi, in which Vice-President Joyce Banda took office despite fears that she might be blocked by associates of President Bingu wa Mutharika after his unexpected death. The country faces a multitude of structural problems, including donor dependency and the role of tobacco, a major threat to global public health, as the leading export. But for now the mood is optimistic. Malawians as well as outside observers say the country is ready for a new start.
The new president is not only the first woman head of state in Southern Africa, and the second on the continent, but someone with a distinguished history of civil society activism as well as having served in several government posts since 2004, including the post of vice-president since 2009. She was excluded from government office by President Mutharika in December 2010, but retained her constitutional position as vice-president.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains several articles with commentary on the current developments and relevant background. The first is an article by Diana Cammack which appeared in the Guardian's Povery Matters blog last week, with a short update provided for AfricaFocus yesterday by the author.
Also included are an interview by AllAfrica.com with then Vice-President Joyce Banda from September last year, and a commentary by Gwinyai A. Dzinesa and Cheryl Hendricks of the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa.
Additional current commentary:
"Banda Gives New Lease on Life to Malawi," by Claire Ngozo Inter Press Service, Apr 15, 2012 http://ipsnews.net/text/news.asp?idnews=107435
"Who are the 'honourable' - MPs or citizens?," by Fletcher Tembo ODI Blog Posts, 17 April 2012 http://tinyurl.com/7ec54sk
Additional background analysis of 2011 crisis:
"Malawi Risks Becoming 'Fragile State,'" by Diana Cammack Guardian Poverty Matters Blog, Nov 17, 2011 http://tinyurl.com/6vhl4tk (includes links to a longer analytical report)
For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on Malawi, visit http://www.africafocus.org/country/malawi.php Of particular interest is a report from July 2011, at http://www.africafocus.org/docs11/mal1107.php - Editor's Note
How democracy came through in Malawi's succession
When Malawi's president died, the danger arose that constitutional succession would be subverted. But civil society and an astute vice-president made sure that didn't happen
Diana Cammack, April 11, 2012
Guardian Povery Matters Blog http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters Direct url: http://tinyurl.com/7a29mcs
[Diana Cammack is a research associate of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI, http://www.odi.org.uk) and head of the local governance & leadership stream of the Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP; http://www.institutions-africa.org).]
Malawi narrowly escaped another convulsion last week when it took more than 48 hours for Vice-President Joyce Banda to be formally recognised as the new president, as mandated in the country's constitution, after the sudden death of Bingu wa Mutharika.
Details of Mutharika's death remain scanty, as intended by his associates. Last Thursday, he was meeting with an MP from the ruling Democratic Progressive party (DPP) when he collapsed. He was taken to Kamuzu central hospital in Lilongwe, and some reports say he was dead on arrival.
Since 2009, Mutharika's efforts to ensure that his brother Peter and the DPP win the 2014 elections has dominated Malawi's politics. He had chosen Banda as his own running mate in 2009 because she could win in the rural areas. By promoting women's rights, education and business when in and out of government, Banda had gained a large following. However, Mutharika ostracised her as soon as the elections were won, fearing she had presidential ambitions. Eventually, she was expelled from the DPP and formed her own People's party (PP).
Mutharika sought to crush all opposition by arresting and attacking outspoken critics and to stifle popular outrage with the failing economy by putting down demonstrations.
His obstinate refusal to float the kwacha, Malawi's currency, resulted in it being overvalued in April by 80% -- and it brought a shortage of foreign exchange in the banking system. Mutharika's "zero-deficit budget" and a reduced reliance on western aid pushed Malawi into an economic crisis - with petrol shortages, power cuts, business closures, and rising prices and unemployment.
He told western donors "to go to hell" after expelling the British high commissioner several months ago. While the Chinese built new edifices, the old infrastructure deteriorated for lack of funds for maintenance. Key government contracts awarded without open tendering became the order of the day, while questions about Mutharika's rapid accumulation of wealth were raised by civil society, .
On the president's death, the DPP, seeking time to figure out how to halt Banda's succession, made no announcement, and sent his body to Johannesburg. But rumours began to spread that the president was dead. However, the state broadcaster, MBC, continued its regular programmes so the news could not easily reach the rural areas.
Meanwhile, the cabinet and Mutharika's close associates met secretly in Lilongwe. Some were adamant that Banda could not be allowed to take power. They apparently considered making the newly appointed DPP leader, Peter Mutharika, prime minister (leaving Banda as ceremonial president), while others suggested appointing a new president and vicepresident from the DPP and bypassing her altogether.
By last Friday, civil society leaders were becoming restive. They held a press conference, and said Malawians would not stand for anything other than a constitutionally mandated succession. Banda's residence was being guarded by the army. Former president Bakili Muluzi and former vice-president Justin Malewezi called for calm.
The problem was that no formal announcement of Mutharika's death had yet been made, and his body had been spirited away. But Banda outflanked the plotters by asking the South African government to notify her formally of Mutharika's health.
Only when she heard from Pretoria did she make her move. By then civil society, the army, aid donors and others had made it clear they supported the constitutional succession. The plotters made one last foolish move: five senior DPP officials appeared on television to tell citizens not listen to anyone but them.
Last Saturday, Banda went on air to offer condolences to Mutharika's family and declare a 10-day mourning period. The office of the president and cabinet finally announced Mutharika had died. Later that day Banda went to parliament to take the oath of office, more than two days after Mutharika's death. By then, mass "defections" by DPP MPs to the PP were being reported.
Last Sunday, Banda replaced the chief of police, Peter Mukhito. The new chief, Lot Dzonzi, is known to be a human rights advocate. Other key changes -- at the Treasury, the reserve bank, the ministry of information and the MBC -- soon followed.
Banda is expected to reverse many of Mutharika's fiscal policies, which will allow the IMF to renew aid, and for other donors to follow. The kwacha is likely to be floated, and donors have promised to help combat the impact of devaluation on the poor. In due course, these changes should alleviate foreign exchange and fuel-shortages and get businesses and people back to work.
Update added for AfricaFocus Bulletin, Apr 18, 2012
Malawi is currently undergoing an extended period of mourning as Mutharika's body is taken around the three major cities for people to view it. Indicative of the confusion that surrounds his demise is the changing date of his death painted on the white cross that accompanies the coffin (http://tinyurl.com/73p3t3k). The date is still not right if we are to believe he was dead when he left the hospital on the 5th as doctors state. The date of his death is important because the DPP, including those who plotted what has come to be known as the 'silent coup', will lead the formal opposition in parliament. Thus far government has shown no signs of prosecuting those who sought to put aside the Constitution and replace Joyce Banda with Mutharika's brother Peter, though a private citizen is threatening a law suit charging several senior DPP officials with sedition and threatening the peace.
Meanwhile Joyce Banda has focused on governing. She has inherited a country in crisis, and started by making changes in key areas - appointing new heads of the police and the state media (MBC) and a new attorney general. She has met key donors who have promised to help Malawi (and especially the poor as prices rise) if she does what Mutharika refused to do - devalue the kwacha. In the medium term this ought to improve the nation's creditworthiness and the importation of fuel, and to restart business, commerce and hiring. A tobacco company manager deported by Mutharika has been readmitted to Malawi, and there is reason to believe the British will soon send a new High Commissioner (as the old one was declared persona non grata by Mutharika). Agreement between government and the IMF on a programme of macroeconomic reform will go some way towards meeting the prerequisites of western donors. In addition the repeal of Mutharika's repressive legislation should see their renewal of general budget support.
Meanwhile South Africa and Zambia have promised to help relieve the immediate fuel crisis, which should help reduce public tension. Civil society activists are calling for the 'twenty demands' made of Mutharika in July 2011 to be addressed first, and for a commission to be established to investigate the mysterious death (and cover-up by the police) of the student leader Chasowa. Joyce Banda --the daughter of an army officer, wife of a retired chief justice, a women's rights activist, and a former minister of foreign affairs -- has inherited significant national and international good will. In this period before Mutharika is buried she has already started to secure some quick wins.
Malawi: How Vice-President Joyce Banda Fell Out With President Mutharika
6 April 2012
Interview by AllAfrica.com
Malawi's Vice-President Joyce Banda gave her view of the deterioration of her relationship with President Bingu wa Mutharika in an interview with AllAfrica last September. She told Trevor Ballantyne and Bunmi Oloruntoba that part of the problem was Banda's desire to promote the candidacy of his brother, and the foreign minister, Peter Mutharika, as his successor:
The genesis of what is going on in Malawi as far as I am concerned starts out with the succession process. We got in this time, the president asked me to stand with him...
[President Mutharika's] promise to the people was, 'I am going to make Joyce Banda my vice-president.' Because I am a women's rights activist, he courted the Malawi women to his side. He said, 'I'll send her back to you with responsibilities that she is passionate about,' things like maternal health... and 70 percent of the people who voted were women.
So we go into the government and two weeks later he announces the first cabinet.....and I am not there. There were two vice-presidents before me [who] had portfolios Straight away announcements came out on the radio from people that were frustrated and felt like they had been betrayed: 'Mr. President you have let us down, we voted for you because of her, you have not fulfilled your part of the deal.'
But then when he... started saying... my brother can stand, he is Malawian, they said, 'This is about your brother,' and straight away the people said to him, 'Then your candidate is your brother, our candidate will be Joyce Banda.' So people started taking sides. All the chiefs, everybody started coming into the conversation. I was ridiculed, castigated.
What started to happen was my ratings went up and his ratings went down. Then the president got even more alert about that, so to cut a long story short, he diverted from his agenda. The whole government now, instead of focusing on promises like, 'we should do this, we shall bring water, we shall empower the youth,' that didn't happen. The president is focused on this succession process, 'who is talking about this and that? Who is not on my side? Who is on Joyce Banda's side?'
At the end of the day, the economy got so bad, the basic needs of the people started to go: no water, no electricity, no medicines in the hospital. And as all that is happening, then he started passing laws... For example... where a minister has the power to ban a newspaper that says anything against him that he doesn't like...
He insisted that I endorse his brother because everyone had to endorse his brother. And I said, 'No, Mr. president I don't think this is a good idea, we haven't even started working, this is only our second year [in power].' So he gave me two weeks: 'You either endorse or you will be expelled from the party.'
At that point there was an attempt on my life, and fortunately for me I had switched cars, and they hit the car that I was supposed to be in. Up until now the president has refused to set up a commission of inquiry to find out who was going to kill me; I haven't seen a police report.
When two weeks elapsed, I was called and I was expelled from the party. He said you cannot belong to the party and I was vice-president of the party. Unfortunately, for him, he couldn't sack me [as vice-president of the country]. The people in the country said, 'No you cannot sack her, and for your information we are going to support her.' So after I left, Malawians formed what they call 'Friends of Joyce Banda' [which] grew and grew and grew.
I did a survey and I asked what should I do? And 85 percent said you form a party, don't join another party. What you must know is that ever since 1984 there is no vice-president that started with a president when he was elected into office and finished with that president. Somewhere things go wrong...
[When Malawians planned protests in July 2011 and Mutharika announced counter-demonstrations]... I wrote him and said, Mr. president I am begging you, don't bring bloodshed in Malawi, don't start that, don't do it. We are the last persons to do that, because you and I have taken an oath to protect the same Malawians you are fighting with on the streets!
And side by side that I issued a press statement, I said, Mr. President allow them to march, Malawians march with responsibility, police protect everybody, and I am asking the president to sit down with organizers... So on the 21st of July... they shot 20 people and that's when he got upset because now he thought people would stop protesting. At the end of the day [Mutharika] cited seven names of those he would 'smoke out'. It included Joyce Banda and two others who had their houses torched, one of them was Rafiq Hajat. The government was still in talks when I left [Malawi to come to the U.S.] but I do not know what the outcome is. So, please pray for us.
'Sleepy Malawi' Makes Political Waves - Joyce Banda As the First Woman President in Southern Africa
by Gwinyai A. Dzinesa and Cheryl Hendricks, 17 April 2012
Institute for Security Studies, South Africa http://www.iss.co.za/
Gwinyai A. Dzinesa is senior researcher in conflict prevention and risk analysis and Cheryl Hendricks is senior research fellow in Conflict Management and Peacebuilding.
If women activists are excited, it is because this represents progress in Southern Africa as we ebb closer to 2015, in which 50% of women should be in decision-making positions according to the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development.
But, who is Joyce Banda and what are the political trials that await her as she assumes power? Her ascendance to this position is in itself representative of a larger struggle in Malawi between those supporting a good governance and human rights agenda (largely civil society) and those who have been aligned to the increasingly autocratic modus operandi of the late Mutharika.
Banda, among her many other identities, is a gender activist, educationist and politician. She founded, among others, the Joyce Banda Foundation for Better Education, the Young Women Leaders Network, the National Association of Business Women and the Hunger Project in Malawi and has received much acclaim and recognition for these achievements. She has been an outspoken advocate for women's leadership and women's empowerment and was voted 'Woman of the Year' in Malawi in 1997 and 1998. But it was her rise in the Malawian political landscape that would place her as one of top women leaders in Africa.
Banda occupied the positions of Minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services and Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2004 and 2009. In May 2009 she was elected Vice President, a position that then ignited gender-based power struggles within the party. The succession struggle within the ruling Democratic People's Party (DPP) saw highranking officials asserting that 'Malawi is not ready for a woman president' and Mutharika himself proclaiming his brother, Peter Mutharika, as his successor. These events also represented the beginning of a rapid decline in Malawi with many fearing that it would tread the same path as its previously recalcitrant neighbour, Zimbabwe.
In December 2010 Banda was fired from the DPP. The fact that she was elected made it constitutionally difficult for Mutharika to strip her of the position of Vice President though he certainly succeeded in politically marginalizing her. In 2011, she formed her own party, The Peoples Party. Banda retained the same support that propelled her into power, namely civil society (especially women's groups), as she stood fast in her critique of what was perceived as the growing dictatorial tendencies of Mutharika and a fastdeclining economy.
Mutharika had been re-elected president in 2009 with a sweeping 66% of the vote. This flowed from a generally successful first term during which he was seen as a reformer and in which he had managed to increase Malawi's agricultural output significantly through an input subsidy scheme. However, analysts argue that having earlier freed himself from the shadow of his patron, former president Bakili Muluzi, Mutharika became intoxicated by the acclaim brought by the success of his agricultural policy. The selfproclaimed all-knowing 'economist-in-chief' soon began to show autocratic and eccentric streaks. Since 2010, Mutharika faced growing criticism locally and internationally for authoritarianism, trampling on democratic freedoms, human rights abuses and presiding over the collapse of Malawi's economy.
In an unprecedented move Mutharika expelled Fergus CochraneDyet, the British High Commissioner in Lilongwe, after the diplomat noted in a leaked cable to London that Mutharika was becoming 'ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism'. Britain, Malawi's largest bilateral aid donor, responded with a tit-for-tat ejection of Malawi's High Commissioner from London and withdrawing aid. Meanwhile, Malawi suffered a burgeoning economic crisis fuelled by among others the severance of donor support and a decline in key exports - especially agricultural goods such as tobacco, which accounted for up to 80% of foreign exchange earnings. Malawi's inflation rose rapidly to double figures, pushing higher the cost of living in a country where over 70% of the population of 15.4 million people live on less than $1 a day. A general shortage of foreign exchange affected the government's ability to pay for the import of food, fuel and medicines, resulting in major shortages.
The deteriorating political and economic conditions sparked anti-government demonstrations in Blantyre and Lilongwe last July. 19 people were killed in a ruthless police crackdown to quell the protests, prompting SADC to place Malawi on the summit agenda. Led by Britain, international donors cancelled their aid, citing concerns about the infringement of democratic freedoms, economic mismanagement and bad governance. This caused the economic crisis to worsen since external resources had been funding around 40% of the country's national budget.
Until his death Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, publicly disagreed with the West and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over economic policy, particularly over the devaluation of Malawi's currency. He argued that devaluing the Kwacha would hurt the poor. This prolonged the Lilongwe-donor standoff, further hurting the economy. In February 2012, the finance ministry predicted a $121m budget shortfall in the current fiscal year despite austerity measures.
At the time of his death Mutharika was facing mounting pressure from civil society to step down. This included a March 2012 call by the influential Public Affairs Committee (PAC), a religious rights group, for the resignation of the president or for a referendum for the president to seek a fresh mandate from Malawians within 90 days or face 'civil disobedience'. When Banda took the presidential oath on 7 April, she faced significant challenges that could shake her reign. First, Banda must win over enough MPs so that the DPP-dominated parliament will not block her efforts to govern.
Second, Banda has to win back donor confidence and support for Malawi's suffocating economy. It remains to be seen whether Banda can be careful in her efforts to swiftly reconcile with the West, yet not risk isolation by her Southern African peers in a region in which liberation movement-turned ruling political party camaraderie, antiimperialist solidarity and an old-boys network still hold sway.
Third, Banda has to balance implementing democratic reforms and some austerity measures to restore the country's economy while retaining parliament's vote of confidence and public support.
Fourth, Banda will soon have to decide whether to allow Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir to enter the country in July to attend the African Union Summit taking place in Lilongwe. This after the International Criminal Court referred the country to the United Nations Security Council for refusing to arrest the indicted Sudanese leader during his visit to Malawi in October last year.
Having the second woman as president is a major step forward for Africa. Having the first woman as president is an even bigger step for Southern Africa. But, the challenges are daunting and she will need all the support she can get. We wish her well!