Is the Joyce Banda the world sees the Joyce Banda Malawians know?

Guest Post by Jimmy Kainja*

Joyce Banda, the fourth President of Malawi, is among this year’s Foreign Policy list of 100 Global Thinkers for “stepping in – and up – to fix a broken country” after her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika died suddenly of a heart attack in April this year. She’s in there at Number 22, well behind Paul Ryan, just behind George Soros and miles ahead of the other Africans on the list, Chinua Achebe and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

FP rightly points out that President Banda faces a mammoth task in trying to stabilise the faltering economy inherited from Mutharika:

Her work is cut out for her. So far, however, all signs suggest Banda could become a new model for African leadership – shedding the strongman syndrome and getting down to business to help the poor. To prove it she has cut her own salary by 30 per cent and put her predecessor’s $12 million presidential jet and most of his fleet of 60 luxury cars up for sale.

As I have argued before, President Banda needed to do this, she had no option. These were necessary measures if the country was to regain the confidence of the donor community that deserted the country en masse due to her predecessor’s poor human rights record, bad governance and poor diplomatic relations (swapping diplomatic expulsions with the UK, but establishing new ties with countries like Armenia and Mongolia).

Reversing Mutharika’s policies was the most straightforward and predictable task before her. Anyone coming into her position would have needed to do it; the main challenge for President Banda was to come up with her own policies, and this remains a challenge. Apart from the 30 per cent pay cut she and her deputy have taken, lavish government spending and misplaced priorities are still endemic in Malawi.

Local media are packed with headlines about various civil society groups, faith organisations and NGOs asking Banda and her administration to reduce unnecessary spending and to get their priorities right. Most of these pleas have been welcomed with rebuttals and excuses from the government. Malawi Economic Justice Network (MEJN), a local coalition of over 100 civil society organisations recently observed that the President’s endless travel “mocks” the pay cut.

The organisation’s director, Dalitso Kubalasa told a local daily newspaper, The Daily Times that the pay cut was “not good enough,” adding:

We at MEJN advocated for an immediate reciprocal cut on their subsistence allowances especially for cabinet ministers, for the austerity measures’ symbolism be complete and truly make a difference.

Most local analysts initially saw the pay cut as a political gesture and not a fiscal measure, aimed at reflecting the country’s hard economic times. It is crucial to have in mind that while steadying the staggering economy may be President Banda’s priority, she also has her sights on 2014 elections. Therefore, the 30 per cent pay cut is also aimed at the electorate, the majority of whom would happily accept the symbolic gesture without questioning what it actually means.

The news of the pay cut also got international media excited. Unsurprisingly, almost all of these news organisations saw the pay cut as a refreshing story given that the majority of news about African presidents is about greed and corruption. This meant that there was a lack of proper analysis from the international media. A Google search on the subject indicates that 17 of the first 20 results are from international media organisations.

It’s thus surprising that Banda made it onto FP’s list based on the reasons they provided. FP’s point that President Banda could shed the continent’s “strongman syndrome” and get “down to business to help the poor,” clearly shows that FP have arrived at their conclusions largely based on international media reports, that do not use local reporters.

It is becoming apparent that dual personality is an emerging trend among Malawi presidents. Mutharika is arguably much more revered elsewhere than he ever was in Malawi. Steven Sharra, a Malawian blogger, set out this argument in the aftermath of Mutharika’s death, asking: “Was the Bingu Africa saw the Bingu Malawians Knew?” The British government seems to have sensed the dual personality pattern. They recently acknowledged many areas in which Banda has had notable achievements thus far. Yet they also pointed out that there are still many issues that need sorting out, including “domestic accountability”.

Banda has certainly got the knack of playing it to the donors, as she has on the issue of homosexuality. She got the international community excited that she was repealing the laws while at home she’s stayed mum. Amnesty International got excited about it while Banda’s justice minister denied it at home.

This is something FP has clearly missed or chosen to ignore. Had FP had a researcher in Malawi for this piece, which I doubt they did, they could have come up with a more accurate conclusion that reflects the actual reality in Malawi.

I am happy that President Banda is on the list and I believe she deserves it, more so than many others listed. Mutharika left the country’s economy in tatters and it was a nation of people without hope. Joyce Banda’s elevation gave people hope, both Malawians and those in the international community. But I disagree with the grounds of her inclusion – it’s flawed. Perhaps it would have been better to concentrate of global achievements, it is a list of global thinkers after all.

* Jimmy Kainja is a media scholar, writer, social and political analyst. He is interested in political and social change in Sub-Saharan Africa, Malawi in particular. He blogs at Spirit of uMunthu and appeared on our list of Malawi’s Top Tweeters (follow him on twitter @jkainja).


11 thoughts on “Is the Joyce Banda the world sees the Joyce Banda Malawians know?

  1. I will legitimize this article in that it talks more about Banda and Malawi than anything else … otherwise how can one take seriously any article based on any list FP magazine makes up? Have you critically and scholarly taken a look at this silly list?

    • Considering the fact that Bingu left the country in the turmoil, I would quickly agree with the FP Magazine inclusion Of Joice Banda. Rebuilding an economy which was completely distorted will take quite sometime. But Banda within a short time Banda has managed to regain the confidence of the donors for the country.
      Jesus was rebuked in his country and His potential recognized very easily outside His country.

  2. @apostrophekola But don’t these silly lists sometimes provide a good excuse to say something much more insightful, as JK has here?

  3. It is always refreshing to hear your views JK.

    I wonder if we all want an African leader we can admire. I am speaking from a UK point of view in which we have these two narratives of the Africa Rising and Africa needing aid so there is a need to hold up leaders that say and do the right things. We are thus happy seeing one side of a dual personality. The consequence of this can be seen with Rwanda where for a long time the UK govt could not compute the fact that Kagame could simultaneously deliver on several development indicators, repress opposition and stoke the situation in the Congo. UK aid to Rwanda has finally been suspended in light of recognition of this dual personality.

    That being said noises made by Joyce Banda should not be dismissed – they are a first step in the right direction. I also don’t think she had to make them when she came into office. She could have said half of what she did when she came into office and still have the international community excited and make that FP list. Indeed for just not being Mutharika.

    Look forward to hearing more from inside Malawi.

  4. Having lived in Malawi for the past couple years now one of the things I have always been impressed with the political intelligence of its people vis-a-vis their leaders. On the other hand there is a depressing lack of engagement by both politicians AND political commentators with the practical grievances of the majority of (poor) Malawians and very little discussion about possible solutions to those grievances. While political commentators like JK safely (and correctly) point out the absence of JB’s policy vision for the country, they too lack policy answers themselves and seem disturbingly more comfortable criticizing rather than being constructive or better yet actually doing something themselves to improve the economic and political development of the country. I remember being struck by how quickly the NyasaTimes for example, went from hailing JB’s ascension to power to their current deep disappoint with her regime. I’m not saying cut her some slack, she doesn’t need it and as you say what she has done was the “easy” stuff, but when NO ONE in the country is offering real solutions, criticism is not enough. Stop reacting to the FP and start thinking about practical solutions to your country’s woes.

    • Justin, on a very basic level – yes – I agree, criticism unless constructive is useless. On a more realistic level, my thinking is, why should I come up with or suggest policies when I’ve got my own job, it’s very fulfilling and takes up all my time and energy. I am going to criticise what I perceive as incorrect, and no I am not going to offer alternatives because I am not a politician. I’m afraid your suggestion as to practical solution’s is not at all practical, yes, on a basic level we can do our bit where we can in our homes and around our towns and cities, but having lived in Malawi yourself perhaps you can suggest ‘practical solutions’ to the chronic corruption culture, to ‘the big man syndrome’ to the lack of basic education, health facilities medicines. Solar panels, using food that is available properly and in a different way bla bla bla we know the drill… but there are bigger socio- economic and global economics at play here, I dont think my little practical solution is going to affect those…

      • “I don’t think my little practical solution is going to affect those…”
        And this is exactly the kind of thinking that is a big part of the problem it seems to me. When I talk to many Malawians they think (albeit not without complete justification) that, A.) there is nothing I can really do and B.) in any case it is not by job because “I am not a politician” and finally the kicker C.) My life is already comfortable (since I personally don’t know the local languages here my conversations tend to be with upper class Malawians) I will complain but its more of a hobby than something I am really concerned about or motivated to change.

        Sorry guys but you should know (and mostly do know) that your politicians are not going to save you so you can’t throw it on them. And if there is nothing you believe you can do and in fact because of your own personal job you are comfortable enough that you don’t really care to make it a priority anyway, then really that is not a very convincing place from which to be criticizing anything with any authenticity. I’m not saying your criticisms are wrong, but come on it is so easy to be simply “right” that its hardly worth paying attention to.
        As far as offering my own practical solutions, as a foreigner I think it is probably not my place because A.) although I have lived here for a couple years now, comparatively speaking I know almost nothing about the place relative to your average Malawian, and B.) you have enough white people trying to tell you what to do already, most of which you know to be complete bullshit. Do you really want another one? Don’t pass the buck.

  5. I’m sorry, I think that’s the easiest thing to say – societies evolve, things change; sometimes over many many years and others in the blink of eye. All these ‘solutions’ and ‘suggestions’ are useless unless there is a critical mass to follow through with them. With respect, if you dont have your own solutions yourself for whatever reason then your completely abstract perspective cannot hold water either. Change and progress can emerge out of bizarre occurrences, seemingly inconsequential opinions and personal choices can change the world as well. Without meaning to sound biased at all; what you are ‘trying to tell me is a different form of the point you make at the end -B. Your premise flawed.
    (I hope I dont sound too hostile, its an interesting subject for me)

  6. Justin, I perfectly agree with what you say. Am a member of the African diaspora in the Caribbean. and it really is depressing how some western commentators, not journalist—they just spew stereotypes-are more insightful and constructive about the problems in Africa and possible solutions.

    My favorite is an American professor Deborah Brautigam who specialises on China in Africa. what we need to remember is that the African critics of African governments belong to the same class as the African ruling elite. These are people that these critics grew up with or went to school with. These people are essentially criticising themselves, without knowing it.

  7. I take my hat off to president Banda considering the challenges she face in an aggressive global economy.I pray that against all odds,she can first bring the people of Malawi together for the purposeful socioeconomic revolution which is urgently needed.
    For me the problems of Africa continue to be the double role Western Democracies play in the back and forth movement of the continent they continue to ravish and with which they play ping-pong.
    Africa needs to move in the direction of continuous food and housing production so as to lift citizens out of poverty. All governments must settle outstanding wars which cast a dark shadow over the continent and continue to distract them from their real tasks.We must recognize that only Africans can solve the problems of Africa for while the West calls for peace,white people continue to sell dangerous weapons to our misguided brothers.
    I pray president Banda would be just,fair and tolerant of those who oppose her with respect in order that Malawi can aggressively tackle poverty.

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