Africa Notes: President Banda, changing the game

Joyce Banda’s ascension to the presidency of Malawi has been a game changer for that nation, and could be for Africa as well.

Domestic Game Changer
Politically, up until President Mutharika’s death, it seemed unlikely that Joyce Banda would wield major influence in that country, despite her status as his Vice President. Indeed, the former President Mutharika had seen Banda, his VP, expelled from his party in 2010 (Reuters). Mutharika, however, was facing growing opposition just prior to his death. His disputes with Western donors had led to reduced aid for the country. In an obituary, The Guardian noted that he went “from one of the most respected African leaders to a repressive despot in just two years” (The Guardian). Those frustrations are evident in Lucius Banda’s single “Life”. (h/t habanahaba).

Economically and politically, Malawi seemed headed for disaster.

Enter, Banda.

President Joyce Banda demonstrated she is different from the start. She fired an unpopular police commander and the foreign minister (brother of the former President), reshuffled the cabinet, and made a number of other administrative changes throughout the government (Africa Arguments, Reuters). She is also beginning to intervene in monetary policy, dropping the currency’s peg to the dollar (ICTSD). This may improve export performance.

She–apparently–has also come out in favor of removing bans on homosexuality in that country (though there is some confusion about the extent of this: Kim Dionne)

Donors have returned (Reuters). This may soon include a loan by the IMF as well (African Arguments).

Headlines immediately showed the hope both Malawians and many in the international community have felt:

This is a small, landlocked country, with a population of 15.4 million people, and a gross national per capita income of $330 (BBC). But Banda appears as principled and strong. And it appears that she has changed the situation for that country… for now. As Keith Somerville writes, Banda has brought “Malawi back from the brink.”

Game Changer for Africa
At the continental level, President Banda may prove to be a game changer as well, though her influence will be limited by Malawi’s relatively small stature. Mostly, she has an opportunity to shine as a leader with unique moral authority on the continent. This could stem from…

  • Her example as a woman leader and activist; and
  • Her approach to human and political rights.

The two themes the international media have paid most attention to are her stance on homosexuality and her apparent support for the ICC’s pursuit of al-Bashir. Unfortunately, the media may be getting both of these stories wrong. If she is taking moral stances on these issues, the motivations are muddied, at a minimum, by her clear need to appeal to Western donors for aid.

As has been widely reported, President Banda asked the African Union to prevent Bashir from taking part (Reuters). Now, the real question is her motivation. Unfortunately, any vision we might have of Banda as a visionary Western-style liberal leader may need to be qualified. There are at least two reasons beyond a concern for ethic and human rights for Banda’s decision here. Indeed, she does not clearly say anything about Bashir’s culpability and the moral or even legal implications of allowing him to attend a summit in Malawi.

  • It is about money (I). Malawi’s stated appeal to the AU was based on concerns about donors. The concern seems to be that allowing Bashir would look bad to donors which have only just started to give money again to Malawi. (It is notable too that some donors have suggested that anti-gay policies in Africa could be a reason to suspend or reduce aid.)
  • It is about money (II). Even before she was President, Banda was apparently unhappy with the idea that Malawi would be hosting the summit. As Rebecca Chimjeka reports, when Banda was still the VP she was opposed due to the costs of hosting a summit and the lack of assurances that there would be financial support from the AU or other African leaders. She did eventually receive the assurance, but one can wonder whether she thought that support adequate.

I am not sure what her long-term legacy will be, but Banda does seem to have an opportunity to wield Mandela-like moral authority in Malawi and across the continent. To do that, however, will require an even clearer articulation of a vision for her country and Africa. In the meantime, no one can argue that she has changed her own country’s economic and political situation… for now.

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