Malawi prides itself on being a peaceful, friendly and law-abiding country, but it is also well-known for occasional lurches in the opposite direction. The recent transfer of power, from President Bingu wa Mutharika, who died on 5th April of a heart-attack, to his Vice-President, Joyce Banda, is well within this tradition.
Although he had loathed Joyce Banda almost from the moment he had appointed her as his running-mate for the 2009 presidential election, and had seen to both her expulsion from his own ruling Democratic Progressive Party and complete isolation from government, Bingu’s obvious desire to be rid of his deputy and of her constitutional right to replace him in an emergency was thwarted by that very Constitution. He tried to do what he had done before, and more brutally, with his first VP, Cassim Chilumpha, by pretending she did not exist and by leaving his underlings to harass her in every way possible.
When Bingu died, there was a frantic attempt by some DPP party-loyalists in the Cabinet to conceal the fact of his death by having his body whisked off to South Africa. When concealment failed, they tried to secure the succession to the presidency of his younger brother, Peter, as Bingu undoubtedly would have wished, claiming that Joyce had sacrificed her vice-presidential rights by forming her own political party in opposition to the DPP. Peter Mutharika had been extracted from his academic post in USA; he had taken over the leadership of the DPP; he had been groomed for the succession with several ministerial portfolios and presidential-style motorcades. He belonged to the ‘top’ family and was clearly the man destined for the job
Malawians thought otherwise. They had never really taken to the younger Mutharika: feeling that, as Minister of Education, he could have prevented a very long strike by academic staff of the University of Malawi and, as Foreign Affairs Minister, that he could have repaired relations with ruffled foreign donors like Britain. His impact in Malawi has generally been small.
Having given the big brother, Bingu, an overwhelming vote of confidence in the 2009 General Election, the people had quickly become tired of his dour brand of finger-wagging, Hastings-Banda-esque, authoritarianism, and they now blamed him for all the multitude economic misfortunes of Malawi. Starved not only of fuel supplies, of regular electricity, of water and even of sugar (which Malawi produces), but also of the colour and jokey friendliness of the Muluzi-style of presidential government that had preceded Bingu’s, the Malawian people have lost interest in the Mutharikas and warmed to Joyce’s smiling face, and to her colourful hats and dresses.
She had also started to make her mark beyond the merely sartorial. The obvious sources of government misinformation under Bingu: Patricia Kaliati’s Ministry of Information and Bright Malopa’s Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, have had much-needed changes of leadership. The police service has lost the Inspector-Generalship of Peter Mukhito, who had been widely blamed for the murderous crackdown on last July’s demonstrators and the mysterious death (he called it “suicide”) of a student activist, Robert Chasowa.
She will certainly bring the donors back to Malawi because they have at least as great a need to disgorge their bursting International Development purses as Malawi has eagerness to dispose of them. “I expect the resumption of aid will happen” said Ken Lipenga, the canny political survivor from two decades of Malawi’s turbulent politics and now its Minister of Finance. Joyce Banda’s People’s Party will soon be swollen with opportunistic turncoats from the once-mighty DPP and will also benefit from the watchful friendliness of the opposition Malawi Congress Party and United Democratic Front. Parliament should be no immediate problem for her. The police and army can be relied-upon for unimaginative loyalty to their new Commander-in-Chief.
So the new presidency is stumbling out of the sullen night of Bingu’s second term, but Joyce Banda must surely be aware that such a statement described very well Bingu’s situation a mere three years ago when he and the DPP were emerging, blinkingly, from their great electoral triumph and preparing to govern Malawi unopposed for another 5 years. The turning wheel of fortune was a popular metaphor for medieval European kingship and modern Malawians have many variations of it in their own equally extensive arsenal of moralisms. They know that the wheel is still turning and that not everyone has fallen-off it at the same time as Bingu.
Nor has the world changed outside the Lilongwe hot-house of government departments, parliamentarians, embassies, aid-agencies and attendant “Non-Government Organizations”. Malawi’s poor harvest of its tobacco export-staple, now awaiting buyers in the auction-rooms of Limbe and Lilongwe, has to be addressed urgently by the new government, as has the maize and sorghum famine in the Lower Shire valley. The country’s massive over-population, its degraded arable land, its faltering water-supply and its erratic electricity, its long queues outside foreign exchange bureaus and petrol stations: these have not vanished as urgent issues.