In early March I wrote an article on the erosion of democracy in Malawi in which I suggested that President Bingu wa Mutharika had totally lost direction and that the country needed drastic change.
A few years ago, Mutharika changed from being a champion of democratic ideals to an autocrat. This change unfortunately cost many Malawians a great deal and eroded the many good deeds that he had done during his first term as president.
Back in March, I suggested that two more years of Mutharika’s rule would turn Malawi into a basket case given that he was expected to be in power until 2014 when his term was set to expire. If that were to happen, I argued that Malawi could easily dissolve into chaos. While Africans have several mechanisms to censure such leadership, hardly any criticism of the president has come from African leaders or its regional organizations. I stressed that we cannot wait for things to fall apart until we act and that is was imperative for the African Union’s Panel of Eminent Personalities to take a closer look at Malawi.
Less than a month after I wrote that article, President Bingu wa Mutharika passed away on April 4, 2012. While I was calling for change in leadership, I received the news of his death with sadness and my condolences go to the family. I will always remember the late president for his initiatives to improve food security in Malawi—an idea that other African leaders should borrow.
I was actually in Malawi a day after the change in leadership took place. While I was there, I was amazed by the damage that Mutharika’s policies had had on the economy. As I traveled within the city and rural areas, I was struck by the miles and miles of vehicles queuing for fuel. There are also shortages in many commodities and scarcity of foreign exchange reserves is biting hard.
Also striking was the absence of a sense of loss among Malawians over the loss of their president. When I asked people in rural Malawi about the death of the president, the frequent response was simply that his time to go had come. Clearly Malawians had had enough of their president. It appears that apart from members of his family, the only people who consider the president’s death a real loss are the beneficiaries of the bad policies and state privileges that had come to mark Mutharika’s rule.
But there is great hope that has come with the new president, Joyce Banda. After crude and rather stupid attempts by Mutharika’s cronies to ignore the constitution and bar the then vice president from taking over the presidency, Mrs. Banda has now taken full control of the government. For the people of Malawi, she is a sign of hope and they can now talk of a better future.
President Banda faces many challenges ahead. Most of these will involve correcting and reversing the policies instituted by Mutharika when he sought to amass dictatorial powers. There are challenges associated with dealing with development partners who were told to “go to hell” by Mutharika. However, the most daunting challenge will be how to deal with the entrenched networks of government officials and private sector operatives whose lifeline had been siphoning the state coffers.
Fortunately, the people of Malawi are with the new president. But she will need to be tough. She must take the position of an “Iron Lady.” She has already demonstrated this by making important changes, but more must be done.
Development partners have penalized Malawians because of the actions of the Mutharika government. They must now return as soon as possible. I would advise the American government to revoke the suspension of Malawi’s eligibility to the Millennium Challenge Corporation Account immediately. There is no need to wait for unnecessary vetting.
The late President Bingu wa Mutharika remains a mystery to me. As an early admirer of him, I am intrigued by the radical change that he underwent upon becoming president and especially during his second term. He came to power with a lot of good will—both domestically and internationally. However, he ultimately lost favor both at home and abroad because of his undemocratic actions.
Likewise, President Banda has come to power with a lot of goodwill from home and abroad . But she must be careful not to follow the path of her predecessor. It is easy to squander such goodwill. President Banda must be very careful not to fall victim to the trappings of power.
Last Friday (April 13, 2012), I was traveling around Lilogwe and I was stopped by police as the president’s motorcade passed through. The president’s limousine was surrounded by over 20 outriders, a large number armed cruisers and other vehicles as part of the president’s security detail. A very large convoy by any standards. While the president’s security is critical, there is no need to be extravagant. For a country that is heavily dependent on donors and one that is experiencing severe fuel shortages, such an image does not reflect a leadership that seeks to move away from the trapping of power that marked Mutharika’s regime. So, Your Excellency President Banda, as you rationalize the activities your government, start by getting rid of some of those vehicles in your motorcade.
I think some people are overreacting — the people who say, oh this is the end of the U.S.-China relationship as we know it. That’s not necessarily true. They could be lenient to Trump and treat Taiwan differently. We need to know a lot more and we shouldn’t pre-judge the situation but we shouldn’t trivialize it either.