Malawi’s new president must build support and mend donor relations


by Keith Somerville
Monitoring from afar the Malawian reaction to the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika and the inauguration, after a brief succession struggle, of Joyce Banda as the new president I couldn’t help being reminded of a Private Eye cover from September 1966 after the assassination of South African President Hendrik Verwoerd. The cover reporting his killing showed celebrating Zulus with the headline “A Nation Mourns”. While there weren’t many exuberant demonstrations of joy at his death, there was little mourning, and within hours of Joyce Banda’s swearing in, Malawian bloggers were joking about the attempts by the late president’s brother and his supporters to carry out a constitutional coup. One blogger said Malawians shouldn’t have worried that Peter Mutharika would take over as he didn’t have a B in his name – all Malawian presidents have had a B: Kamuzu Banda, Bakili Muluzi, Bingi wa Mutharika and now Joyce Banda.

On a more serious note, it was touch and go whether there would be a smooth handover of power on the sudden death of President Mutharika from a heartyattack on Thursday 5th April. Close political allies (his wife and brother were both members of his cabinet) had his body flown to South Africa without reporting his death to Malawians. Rumours abounded – blogs and news websites reported variously that he was already dead, that he was alive and to receive emergency treatment in South Africa or that he was dying and was flown out of the country to hide his death and enable leaders of his Democratic progressive Party (DPP) to prepare a succession plan. Another report – seizing on the constant power cuts due to the broken down electricity network – said he had to be flown out of Malawi as it didn’t have a working, refrigerated morgue

In the meantime, the late leader’s closest family and allies started putting together a plan to prevent Vice-President Joyce Banda from taking over, as the constitution required. Reports emerged that leaders of the DPP had endorsed Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mutharika who, for the previous two years, had been very clearly groomed by his brother to take over when the latter’s second term as president expired in 2014.

The decision seems to have been reached at a meeting held at the house of the Energy Minister, Goodall Gondwe. Soon after the meeting, the Information Minister Patricia Kaliati said Vice-President Joyce Banda couldn’t become president as she had been expelled from the DPP and had formed her own party. She went on to tell the Vice President that, “She should not speak on the Constitution because she is not supposed to”. Kaliati has since withdrawn the comments and claimed she was ordered to make the statements by senior cabinet colleagues. Peter Mutharika has backtracked too, and pledged his loyalty to the president.

Between Thursday night and Saturday lunchtime, there was feverish speculation about whether the DPP would ignore the constitution or try to use its majority in parliament to change it and prevent Banda taking over. In the end, perhaps lacking support from the police, army and judiciary, DPP leaders gave in. By early Saturday afternoon it was clear that the constitution and Banda had won. Rapid preparations were made for the inauguration. After her swearing-in, Joyce Banda spoke publicly and appealed for “all Malawians to remain calm and maintain peace during this mourning period”. She made her speech amid a show of constitutional unity with the Chief Secretary to the Cabinet and President, Bright Msaka, Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito, the Army Commander Peter Odillo and Attorney General Maxson Mbendera standing behind her. Since her inauguration, President Banda has said that improving the economy and good governance are priorities for her.

Soon after being sworn in, the new president held a briefing with senior by cabinet ministers, including Ephraim Mganda Chiume, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Sidik Mia, the Minister of Transport and Public Works, Ken Lipenga of Finance and Aaron Sangala of Defence. It was not reported that Kaliati, Peter Mutharika or Gondwe were present. But there were other major politicians there who could now play an important role in putting Banda’s administration together; they included former vice president and United Democratic Front MP Cassim Chilumpha, Banda’s lawyer and a former Attorney General, Ralph Kasambara, Uladi Mussa, the President of Maravi Peoples Party (MPP), and Henry Duncan Phoya of the Malawi Congress Party. A number of leaders of civil society groups, who had become increasingly critical of Mutharika’s rule, were also there.

Banda now has two key tasks – to win over sufficient MPs to gain enough support in parliament so that it cannot block her attempts to govern, and to win back the support and trust of major donors, who had frozen aid in protest at Mutharika’s autocratic style of rule.

The New President

Banda is a formidable politician and an active promoter of women’s rights in Malawi. She was appointed Vice President by Mutharika in 2009, only to fall out with him and his party barely a year later. The DPP expelled her, accusing her of forming her own faction. She formed the People’s Party but remained Vice President – as only parliament could sack her. In September 2011, Mutharika carried out a cabinet reshuffle in which he failed to re-appoint her to her post, but under the constitution she remained Vice President and so his constitutional successor. The DPP has a majority in parliament and she needs the support of a sizeable group of its MPs. She’s gained the support for her presidency from more than 20 DPP MPs, including a group of 17 from the central province. It was also reported that 10 MPs from the more politically marginal northern region had joined her party within two days of her inauguration.

Malawi’s parties tend to be shifting coalitions with strong regional support. As a southerner (where the DPP and her own party are strongest) she should be able to garner southern support, as did her two presidential predecessors Mutharika and Muluzi, and with sufficient DPP defectors and at least tacit MCP support in the central region she could gain enough political clout to get through the early weeks of her rule. Among those who have thrown their weight behind her, at least for the time being, include the leader of opposition in parliament John Tembo of the Malawi Congress Party. Speaking on Sunday, Tembo said most opposition back-benchers will support government business. “She does not have to worry at all, there is no problem, the opposition is behind her,” he’s quoted as saying. The opposition United Democratic Front Party has also said it will support her.

As Malawians await news of her first cabinet, Banda has acted fast to sack the unpopular police commander, Peter Mukhito, and appoint a successor, Loti Dzonzi, who is more acceptable to her supporters, civil society groups and to ordinary Malawians – who had grown to fear and hate the police after the violent suppression of demonstrations in July 2011. Human rights groups are already calling for Mukhito to be prosecuted over deaths of demonstrators last year and attacks on critics of Mutharika.

Winning over the donors

The donors should be even easier to win over. Britain, the United States and Germany had all frozen part of their aid to Malawi over Mutharika’s attacks on democracy and his erratic policies. In the final months of his life he accused donors of funding opposition demonstrations and refused to see delegations from the World Bank and the IMF. In a particularly intemperate speech in March, Mutharika told foreign donors to “go to hell”, accusing them of plotting with local groups to topple his government.

In July 2011, Britain suspended budgetary support worth £19m. In March, as Mutharika became more and more intolerant, the UK Department for International Development (DFID) told the author that the Malawian president’s allegations were “unhelpful and unfounded” and that, “If Malawians themselves want to call for political change, or to protest peacefully, we believe it is their right to do so”. The British suspension matched moves made by the World Bank, the EU, the African Development Bank, Germany and Norway.

Britain is Malawi’s main bilateral donor and was expected to provide aid worth £90m in 2011, before the rupture in relations. The German government halved its budget support contribution in 2011 and the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation is withholding a 350 million dollar grant to rehabilitate Malawi’s failing energy network. Donor aid accounts for 40 per cent of Malawi’s national budget. The US government has already put out a positive statement saying, “By following constitutional procedures for this transition, the government and people of Malawi have reaffirmed their commitment to democratic principles …We stand with the people of Malawi during their time of mourning, and look forward to deepening the partnership between our nations”.

The Malawi business community has called for a rapid restoration of good relations with the IMF and major donors. The President of the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI), Mathews Chikankheni, and the CEO of the huge Press Corporation Limited (PCL) Group, Mathews Chikaonda, have both said normalisation of the country’s relations with development partners was vital to addressing most of country’s problems, which include frequent power cuts and worsening fuel shortages. In an interview with Reuters on 9th April, incumbent Finance Minister Ken Lipenga said he expected aid to be resumed and talks to start soon with the IMF.

While no announcements have been made about aid, the major donors will be relieved that the Mutharika era is over, and the chance for Banda to start things afresh. Both sides are likely to see it in their interests to restore more harmonious relations quickly. Banda needs the money and she represents a major change in style that should please donors.

Keith Somerville lectures in Humanitarian Communications in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, at Canterbury and runs the Africa

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