Malawi: A sudden change comes over the land

Travis Lupick

After the unexpected death of her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, has sought to attune her programme to meeting some of the country’s most urgent needs, and primarily to halting the economy’s steep decline.

A most unusual set of political changes has unfolded in Malawi since former president Bingu wa Mutharika unexpectedly died of a heart attack on 5 April 2012.

At the time of his death, Joyce Banda was effectively a member of the opposition and one of the president’s most vocal crit­ics, but she was also Malawi’s constitution­ally elected vice-president, despite having fallen out with Mutharika in 2010. In fol­lowing the constitutional process, Banda emerged as the new head of state, overrid­ing efforts to appoint the late president’s brother. And so Malawi’s new leader has worked at a fervent pace to move the coun­try away from the policies of a government that just three years earlier won a majority in free and fair elections – a majority she helped to achieve.

Banda’s efforts have been met with ap­plause. Members of the international com­munity have expressed support for depar­tures from the policies of her predecessor. In Malawi, civil society leaders now speak with palpable optimism. And large numbers of MPs have flocked to Banda’s People’s Party (PP) – which didn’t exist during the last election – having crossed the floor from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The new president’s success in winning the support of a majority of MPs has at the same time raised questions about the per­sonalised nature of Malawi’s politics. One analyst, John Lwanda, commented: “If the same MPs who contributed to making the autocratic Mutharika, and Bakili Muluzi before him, have thrown in their lot with Joyce Banda, then the only change is the leader herself. Can she change the political culture?”

Speaking shortly after being appointed the new leader of the House, Henry Phoya emphasised that the greatest challenge now is the economy. “Just before the former president’s demise, there was a lot of disil­lusionment,” he said. “There is now a great sense of hope, and so the current govern­ment must rise to the challenge. They are expected to perform near-miracles.”

When Mutharika passed away, Malawi’s economy was in a state of steep decline. His government’s policies had sent inter­national donors running. Foreign currency reserves were exhausted, fuel had grown scarce, and commodity prices soared.

Observers worried that the impoverished Southern African country’s young democ­racy was faltering. Former UK high com­missioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet described Mutharika as “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.

In a watershed moment on 20 July 2011, members of the Malawi Police Service killed 20 people in the country’s largest demonstrations since its transition from dictatorship. Throughout 2011, the human rights situation continued to deteriorate. On 2 September, Robert Chasowa, a 25-year-old student activist and prominent critic of the Mutharika government, was found dead with a wound to the back of his head. The police force was implicated in the incident but Chasowa’s death was ruled a suicide.

During her first week in office, Banda moved quickly to address Western donors’ concerns for human rights. She sacked the inspector general of the police, Peter Mukhito, and opened an investigation into the Chasowa case. “It is quite an excit­ing time,” said MacDonald Sembereka, a leading human rights activist in Malawi. “There are challenges. But I think people will give the new president the benefit of the doubt.” Sembereka, an organiser of the 20 July demonstrations, maintained that Banda came to power through the majority of Malawians who opposed Mutharika, and so they remain on her side.

On 18 May, Banda used her first ‘state of the nation’ address to urge legislators to repeal a number of draconian policies. She singled out laws that allowed warrantless arrests, forbid lawsuits against govern­ment officials, and facilitated the banning of newspapers deemed not in the public’s interest. Also targeted in the president’s speech was Malawi’s ban on homosexu­ality, something which actually enjoys a measure of popular support.

Reactions to the political reforms are en­couraging. In April, South Africa and the Africa Development Bank showed a will­ingness to provide budget assistance and loans aimed at reviving Malawi’s economy.

Banda similarly wasted no time reshap­ing the country’s government. The late president’s brother, Peter Mutharika, who was being groomed for succession at the time of the former president’s death, was dropped from the cabinet, and Mutharika’s widow Callista was removed from her spe­cial post as ‘charity coordinator’. Several other members of the DPP were kept on, including Ken Lipenga, who holds the key position of minister of finance. Banda also showed a willingness to work with rivals when she appointed Austin Atupele Mu­luzi as minister of economic planning and development. Muluzi, the son of a former president, is widely regarded as a rising star in Malawi politics and a man with high am­bitions of his own.

Other notable appointments include Ralph Kasambara, a lawyer and activist, to the po­sitions of attorney general and minister of justice; Ken Kandodo, a grand-nephew of Malawi’s founder, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, to minister of defence; and the new minister of energy and mining, Cassim Chilumpha, who had faced charges of plotting to assas­sinate the former president.

Among the new measures the government has introduced was the 33 percent devalua­tion of the national currency, the kwacha, on 7 May, ending the former pegging to the dol­lar. The sharp devaluation was a key demand of the IMF, and the move is expected to ease stress on foreign currency reserves and alleviate chronic fuel shortages. In the same week, it was announced that Mutharika’s ‘zero deficit’ budget would also be scrapped.

Since Banda took office, changes to Ma­lawi’s political system have come fast. New people are in power, human rights have con­siderably improved, and key international partners look set to work with the new ad­ministration. But the average family has yet to feel the tangible effects of Banda’s reforms.

The new president has two years to the next election to prove that she’s the leader the country hopes she is. Even Banda’s strongest supporters caution that the chal­lenges are great and little will change over­night. Donors may be on their way back to Malawi but fuel queues persist, and electric­ity and water outages continue in the country’s larger cities. Will the people be patient? The anticipated results will have to be felt by 2014, if the electorate is to be counted on to give Banda the second term she’ll need to continue with Malawi’s restoration.

About the author:

Travis Lupick reported from Malawi in 2011-12 for Inter Press Service and the Al Jazeera English website. He is currently working in Liberia


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