y BENJAMIN NJOKU
She came into power by a twist of fate, and today, Joyce Banda, can live to retell the sad story of her struggle to liberate her country from the shackles of political conspiracy, bad leadership and economic underdevelopment.
Banda was catapulted to one of the toughest jobs in the southern Africa region of Malawi last year when her predecessor died in office.
Her sudden elevation occurred in the bewildering 48 hours that followed the collapse of the former president, Bingu wa Mutharika, on April 7, 2012. As vice-president then, Banda found herself facing down the “midnight six”, the cabinet ministers who were determined to keep her out of State House in favour of late Mutharika’s brother, Peter, the country’s foreign minister.
Looking back today, almost a year after she assumed office as president of Malawi, Banda has every cause to attribute the success she has record so far, to the support she has been getting from her countrymen. Although, she admits that the journey to rebuilding her country’s shattered economy has not been an easy one.
“It’s heavy,” says Banda. “But I am able to carry it. Why? Because I’m an African woman. An African woman carries heavy loads anyway. That’s how we are trained; we are brought up that nothing is unbearable. I use that now, positively. I use that now to have the thick skin that I have, and not fear, and move forward, and push; and push forward,” she told a selected Nigerian journalists who paid her a courtesy visit at Presidential lodge, in Lolongwe, capital city of Malawi last week.
According to Banda, the greatest challenge facing her government presently was having to pick up the piece of her country’s economy, and to begin the process of rebuilding it.
“For me, the biggest challenge was to pick up the piece of Malawi’s economy and to begin the process of rebuilding it. The system does not allow you when you have only two years to finish the previous administration’s tenure to roll out your own agenda. But what I need to meet that challenge was to look at the same Malawi Growth and Development Strategy that was in place before I assumed office and picked up the key sectors and focused on them in the next two years to see if we can make any progress,”she said.
Adding, ” I have said that my agenda is to eradicate poverty in Malawi. To eradicate poverty through economic growth, through the creation of wealth and the creation of jobs for the youths. That’s why yesterday(last Friday) was a good day for Malawians, both for hosting of the AMAA nomination party and the launch of job creation programme of my administration. It is exactly what we intend to achieve through the Malawi Growth and Strategy. So, I organised a national dialogue the moment I took over power from the late president on economy. We drew up what we call Malawi economic recovery and within that plan, we picked five sectors, namely Agriculture, Energy, Mining and Infrastructure. The next fifteen months, I have told Malawians that each of those five sectors, there will three major projects that they can see, feel and touch. Whether they are completed or not, they will be able to make reference to those projects that she came , though she did have enough time, she was able to achieve something for the country.”
For Banda, part of the reasons her country went down economically was because of her predecessor’s inability to devalue the local currency, the Kwacha, for three years. “By the time, I took over the headship of government, we had to devalue by 50 per cent which was huge and the impact was also huge on ordinary Malawians. That’s why side by side, the social programme we had to implement, providing such programmes that we can mitigate the effects of the reform progamme,” she stated.
Narrating the circumstances that brought her to power in April last year,Banda accused her predecessor of betraying her.
She recalled; “Immediately we got into office, it was clear that my predecessor had decided to hand over to his brother. This wasn’t part of our agreement. What he told me and my husband when he asked me to come and run with him was that he saw a future in Malawi where after him, a woman would take over the reins of power.”
“Of course, we were going to go through election but he would support me. But from the day one in the State House, it was very clear, that wasn’t the case. As a result, he compromised everybody else. Everybody wanted to please him in the quest to have his brother take over from him. But after a year, it was also clear that he had diverted from the developmental agenda, and was concentrating more on his succession programme.”
“The biggest losers in that equation where Malawians because at the end of the day, we found out that poverty has worsen in the land. This is a country where 85 percent of the people live in the rural areas while 15 percent live in the urban areas. But also statistics showed that half of Malawians live on the poverty line. To cap it all, the economy worsen and poverty worsen too. I was now fighting with my boss during that two to three years of our tenure. I could see things going wrong and once in a while I made public statement and that worsen the relationship. Everybody knew what I went through. It was the civil society and the churches that fought for me. It got so bad that on the 19th of November, 2011, there an assassination attempt on me. Unfortunately, they didn’t succeed, and all the newspapers in Malawi rebuked government for that ugly action. But coming to the situation of the country when I took over the reins of power. Now, the situation has worsen. There was no fuel, there was no drugs in the hospitals, there was nepotism and corruption in high places. Some Malawians were suffering and suddenly, the president died. For one year and half, I was not allowed to come anywhere near the State House. Cabinet meetings take place in the State House, yet I couldn’t attend the meetings.
“In 48 hours, they tried to take over government and sideline me – and, by that, sideline the constitution. In that 48 hours, I fought for my rights.”
The turning point came when the army’s commander supported her claim to the presidency. “I will forever be thankful to the Malawians and international community, and my professional army and army general, who said: ‘No, we will follow the constitution.’ That’s why I’m here.”
However, the country she inherited was “a mess”, with shortages in foreign exchange, medicines, energy, food and fuel. When she arrived State House, Banda warned of a painful 18 months ahead and sought support from donors so “Malawians would see the benefits as quickly as possible”.
One of her first acts was to devalue the local currency, the Kwacha, by 50 per cent , to the evident relief of the IMF.
On why she sold off her presidential jet, including all the exotic cars due for status, Banda said it was a decision she made to save Malawi in the face of the dwindling economy of the country.
“It was not a good decision to sell of the jet. But it was a decision I had to take, I have no choice. Having plane for a president is not a luxury , it is a must. I and Malawians made a decision that we are going to make sacrifices. I spoke to Malawians whether they were ready to take the tough route into the future. In order to prosper, we have to devalue our local currency and make other sacrifices. And the best way to show that I’m with them was just to sell off the presidential jet. I had to make that sacrifice because to me, it doesn’t make sense that whether you park the jet or not, you must continue to spend money.”
“ If this is the way to loss money, let it go, and secondly, I had to count down my salary by 80 percent. In fact, I get token of 2000 dollars as salary every month. I just have to make the sacrifice and demonstrate to Malawians that I’m real. I’m not in power because I want to make money.
An award-winning gender activist and successful entrepreneur, Banda founded the National Association of Business Women of Malawi in 1990.