DIARY: Malawi: Joyce Banda wills the IMF for a loan – By Magnus Taylor
Joyce Banda became President of Malawi by accident. Bingu wa Mutharika, her predecessor, died suddenly of a heart attack in April, an event which prompted 48 hours of confusion as senior political figures, including the President’s brother, tried to engender a constitutional coup and prevent Vice President Banda from acceding to the Presidency. The coup failed, and Banda almost visibly shudders when it is brought up in discussion: “whatever happened in those 48 hours we shall (sic) not want to discuss.”
The new President is a self-effacing individual who clearly wants to be something different from her increasingly unpredictable and autocratic predecessor. She is late for the meeting and apologises several times commenting that she has been told before that “A President doesn’t apologise, well this one does!”
It is hard to tell whether this is all part of the Banda act, or a rare example of Presidential humility. The attitude is at least consistent, when commenting upon the recent repeal of a number of repressive laws drawn up under Mutharika, she corrects the questioner, saying that the President has no power to repeal laws; this is the decision of the Malawian people who must first be consulted.
Banda is under no illusions as to the scale of the task she has in front of her in turning Malawi around from the increasingly dark days of the previous regime. As Vice President she was largely excluded from power, and as such, admits to not knowing how far things had deteriorated. “It has been a long 6 weeks,” she says.
Banda is aware that Malawi’s top priority is to win back the international partners lost under Mutharika’s regime. She says that the worst thing they did in this period was to expel the British High Commissioner, a point that is difficult to disagree with, as Britain has in the past been Malawi’s biggest bilateral aid donor.
Banda’s speech hits most of the right notes. Her vision for Malawi is to eradicate poverty through economic growth and education. Economic growth is clearly her team’s major preoccupation, and well it might be, with Malawi’s GDP per capita languishing at a mere $900 – placing it below Afghanistan on the world scale.
The plan seems to be to focus on tourism and the extractive sector, along with improvement of the country’s infrastructure to facilitate foreign investment. Investment in infrastructure is touted as “an opportunity for business”, although the private sector has generally been tentative when investing in this sector in Africa, hence the attempt to develop Public Private Partnerships, and the like, to raise capital.
The President’s strategic advisor does much of the talking on technical matters, and he has an impressive grasp of a whole range of topics. Banda’s willingness to defer to her staff on policy matters might be taken as a sign that she’s willing to be a figurehead or moral conscience type of a leader, which is quite possibly what Malawi needs after the anti-imperialist ranting of Mutharika. But you wonder whether a President who’s this detached from the detail might find it difficult to articulate a coherent strategy for growth. Still, it worked for Ronald Reagan, but you can’t imagine Meles Zenawi letting a mere advisor steal the limelight in this way.
The immediate priority is clearly getting the IMF to agree an emergency loan to keep the treasury afloat. There is a degree of desperation in how Banda talks about this loan – the IMF are currently in Malawi, and The President comments that “we’ve done all we can, we need support….there is so much at stake.”
One gets the feeling that there has been a new dawn in Malawi, and politically this is certainly true. We can only hope that this feeds in to resolution of some of the economic challenges ahead.
Magnus Taylor is Managing Editor, African Arguments Online.
President Banda was speaking at a closed meeting of the Royal African Society.