Saturday, April 28, 2012

The more things change, the more they stay the same: thoughts on Joyce Banda first cabinet

Joyce Banda's presidency will ultimately be judged on her ability to turn around Malawi's ailing economy. It is just as well, because if she were to be judged by the caliber of her first cabinet which was announced on Thursday, April 26th, she would get a fail grade from this blog. Looking at the long list of recycled individuals in the supposedly new cabinet, we could not but help think the UDF or the DPP are back in power. And then it dawned on us that the People's Party (PP) of Joyce Banda is really nothing more than the DPP which was itself nothing more than UDF.
We must confess at this blog to being underwhelmed by the cabinet names that came out of Mudi House last Thursday. Only 13 names in the 32 member-cabinet are holding ministerial positions for the very first time. The rest, including President Banda herself and Vice president Khumbo Kachali – have either served in the Muluzi or Mutharika administrations. Meanwhile, eight of the 'new' ministers have served in both the Muluzi and Mutharika cabinets.
While this gives Banda's cabinet a heavy dose of experience, it is not the kind of experience that inspires this blog, given the performances of our recent cabinets. Indeed, of the 19 members with prior ministerial experience, 15 have served, or were still serving in the late Mutharika's cabinet. Can we now expect these individuals to become better "performers" simply because their former mentor is no more? We have serious doubts about that. Already, in the week before the late Mutharika was put to rest, one of his ministers who has retained Joyce Banda's confidence, was out on the streets closing shops and issuing threats to grocers for the pricing of sugar. If this is how the new cabinet is going to operate, we doubt the Joyce Banda administration is going to be much different from the previous administrations.
And that is before saying anything about the group of opportunists that joined Banda's People's Party in the morning to be rewarded with cabinet seats in the afternoon. Apparently, one of the new PP members, a former party president, never even bothered to inform his Secretary General before he went on air to claim that he and all the members of his former party had decided to join the PP. We seriously doubt such individuals are in government for anything other than their own personal interest. This is not the recipe for Government of National Unity as many a people have termed this cabinet. We see instead a lot of opportunistic handclappers who will mislead the new president or fail to offer her sound advice so long as they are assured of benefiting from state resources.
Over the past couple of weeks, many a person has spoken about some names carried over from the DPP of not having been part of the excesses of the Mutharika administration…they are said to have been quiet and /or came out quickly to speak out about the proposal to hand the presidency over to Peter Mutharika after Bingu's death. Others have said that well, some of these were Banda's informants in the DPP. Well, if they were quiet, can we expect them to be outspoken now that they are in Joyce Banda's cabinet? And if they informed on a government they served in without resigning, doesn't that show their lack of moral character? What we see are individuals that have so perfected the art of 'not being outspoken' and double-dealing that they are able to glide from one government to another with ease. That to us is not something to be rewarded. It is called cowardice.
Mrs. Banda's saving grace might be that she does not have to do a lot to win over the love of the Malawi public. Already, she has reached out to donors and renewed friendships with neighboring countries in ways that represent a departure from the late Mutharika's personalistic style of leadership. If truth be told though, these were always going to be the easiest things to do, a kind of picking the low-hanging fruit so to speak. The more pressing challenges will involve getting the economy back on track and reviving public confidence in government. Seeing some of the main architects of the disastrous economic policies of the recent past, including the faces of the zero deficit budget and its punitive tax regime, it is hard for us at this blog to be optimistic about the future. We will of course gladly revise our estimation of the new cabinet if it can prove that our fears are unfounded. But until I then, excuse us for being very skeptical.

The new Cabinet in full (an asterix after a name denotes individuals who have never served in cabinet before)
President & Minister Responsible for Public Service            Joyce Banda
Vice President & Minister Of Health Khumbo Kachale
FinanceKen Lipenga
Foreign AffairsEphraim Chiume
EducationEunice Kazembe
Energy & MiningCassim Chilumpha
GenderAnita Kalinde*
Economic PlanningAtupele Muluzi*
Justice & Attorney GeneralRalph Kasambara
AgriculturePeter Mwanza
TransportSidik Mia
Water DevelopmentRitchie Muheya
Local GovernmentGrace Maseko*
Information Moses Kunkuyu*
TradeJohn Bande
LandsHenry Phoya
Home Affairs Uladi Mussa
Defence Ken Kandodo
TourismDaniel Liwimbi
LabourEunice Makangala*
Environment & Climate ChangeCatherine Gotani Hara
Youth & SportsEnock Chihana*
DisabilityReen Kachere
Deputy Ministers
FinanceRalph Jooma
Economic PlanningKhwauli Msiska
GenderJennifer Chilunga*
Local GovernmentGracewell Mtendere*
TransportSosten Gwengwe*
EducationChikumbutso Hiwa*
AgricultureJermoth Chilapondwa*
Environment &Climate ChangeIbrahim Matola*
Foreign AffairsRachel Mazombwe Zulu*

Monday, April 23, 2012

The life and times of Bingu wa Mutharika as he is put to rest

Bingu wa Mutharika who is being put to rest on Monday, April 23 was Malawi's third president after the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda and Bakili Muluzi. He died on Thursday, April 5, 2012 at the age of 78 after suffering a cardiac arrest at the New State House in Lilongwe.

Mutharika was born Brightson Webster Ryson Thomu on 24 February, 1934 at Kamoto Village in Thyolo district of what was then the British protectorate of Nyasaland. His parents were the late Ryson Thomu Mutharika and Mrs Eleni Thomu Mutharika. The young Bingu was educated at various mission schools in Thyolo and Mulanje districts before proceeding for his secondary education at Henry Henderson Institute in Blantyre and Dedza High School where he obtained a Cambridge Overseas School Certificate in 1956.

Mutharika was one of 32 Malawians that were selected to travel to India for tertiary education as the country prepared for independence from British colonial rule. Mutharika enrolled at the University of Delhi where he obtained a Bachelor's Degree in Commerce and a Master's Degree in Economics in 1961. On his return to Malawi in 1963, Mutharika was appointed as an Administrative Officer in the Ministry of Finance, based in the colonial capital of Zomba.

In 1964, Mutharika reportedly fell out with Banda and went into self-imposed exile in Zambia. There are however no records of what exactly contributed to this alleged fall out. Mutharika's name does not appear anywhere in the discussions about the infamous cabinet crisis of 1964 where several senior Cabinet Ministers disagreed with then prime Minister Banda's policies on the pace of Africanization in the civil service.

During a recent trip to Malawi in early 2012, a colleague at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi relayed a story that suggests that Mutharika's decision to flee to Zambia was based on a complete misunderstanding. According to this source, Mutharika was supposed to travel to attend a conference in the United Kingdom. However, as telephones were such rarities at the time, the message informing Mutharika about the conference was relayed through the Zomba police station. As the police messengers did not find the late Mutharika home, they simply left a message asking him to contact Zomba police. As this took place around the same time of the cabinet crisis, Mutharika interpreted the summons to mean he was himself being targeted and opted to flee to Zambia.

While in Zambia, the former Webser Ryson Thomu changed his name to Bingu wa Mutharika in the spirit of the pan-Africanism of the 1960s. Mutharika's curriculum vitae shows that he worked in the Zambian Civil Service where he reprized his old Malawi position as an Administrative Officer in the Ministry of Finance. He did not, however, stay long in the Zambia civil service as he moved to join the United Nations Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1966. Mutharika served at UNECA for the next nine years, rising to the position of Director for Trade and Development Finance. Between 1975 and 1978, Mutharika briefly left UNECA to take up a new position as the World Bank's Loan officer for Kenya and Tanzania. In 1978, he returned to his old job at UNECA and remained there until 1990.

After an absence of nearly three decades, Mutharika returned to Malawi in 1991. He joined the likes of Bakili Muluzi, Brown Mpinganjira and others to found the United Democratic Front (UDF). In an early sign of the late Mutharika's reliance on Muluzi's patronage, he was appointed the first Secretary General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) when it was formed in 1994 .

However, a scathing report that highlighted Mutharika's profligacy, poor leadership and gross mismanagement led to his ouster from COMESA in 1997. Mutharika blamed Muluzi for instigating his removal from COMESA and returned home a bitter man keen to even scores with his former patron. He went on to found the United Party, on whose ticket he contested in the presidential elections of 1999. Mutharika performed poorly and came last among five candidates, scoring only 0.47% of the vote. Broke and with very limited opportunities, Mutharika reconciled with Muluzi and dissolved his United Party. He survived on income from an old and dilapidated minibus which operated in the suburbs of Lilongwe with Mutharika as the driver/conductor.

After dissolving his UP and rejoining the UDF, Mutharika was appointed by Muluzi to serve as deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi. In 2003, Mutharika was brought into Muluzi's cabinet as Minister of Economic Planning and Development.

Following Parliament's rejection of the third-term proposal in July 2003, a bitter Muluzi went over long serving UDF leaders, who he suspected of sabotaging his quest to prolong his tenure, and handpicked Mutharika to stand as the UDF's presidential candidate in the 2004 elections. In a campaign where Mutharika spoke very little, the loquacious Muluzi portrayed Mutharika as an 'economic engineer' who would devise solutions to Malawi's development challenges. Mutharika won the elections with 36% of the vote. 
At his inauguration on 24 May 2004, the new President Mutharika pledged to pursue an anti-poverty agenda with a focus on food security and fighting corruption. Mutharika's anti-corruption agenda, meanwhile led to a quick fallout with his mentor, Bakili Muluzi, who was one of the targets of the anti-corruption drive. Muluzi and the UDF responded by making plans to impeach Mutharika. Mutharika reacted by resigning from the UDF on February 5, 2005 and went on to found the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Between 2005 and 2009, Mutharika and the DPP faced a very hostile Parliament that was dominated by the opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and the UDF.

At the instigation of the opposition-dominated parliament, the Mutharika administration introduced a programme in 2005 that provided heavily subsidized fertilizer to Malawi's subsistence farmers. This led to a major boost in the production of maize, Malawi's staple food crop. The increased agricultural productivity led to impressive economic performance, with the economy growing by an average of 7.6% between 2005 and 2009.
On the back of this strong economic performance, Mutharika was reelected in May 2009 with 66% of the vote, the highest share of the vote of any presidential candidate since the transition from authoritarian rule in 1994. His DPP meanwhile won about 140 seats in the Malawi National Assembly, giving it more than two-thirds overall majority.

As Mutharika's remains are put to rest at his Ndata Farm in Thyolo district on April 23rd, he leaves behind a mixed legacy and many unfulfilled dreams. The strong economic performance and the success of the agricultural subsidy programme gained him a lot of deserved local and international acclaim during his first term. His unfinished second term was on the other hand characterized by poor governance and economic collapse. He picked up fights with an array of individuals and groups, including donors, opposition parties, academics, civil society organizations and the private media. 

In February 2011, he ordered the expulsion of the British High Commissioner to Malawi, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet. The British government, Malawi's largest bilateral aid donor, retaliated by expelling the Malawi High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and suspending aid. In June 2011, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) declared its programme with Malawi 'off-track' after disagreements over fiscal and monetary policy. This resulted in the suspension of budgetary support to Malawi by most western donors. This has led to severe shortages of commodities ranging from fuel to sugar. Foreign currency shortages have forced many companies to close down or downscale. 

While he preached fiscal responsibility, Mutharika traveled extensively with large entourages in an expensive jet. He constructed an inland port in Nsanje that became the definition of a white-elephant.
Although Mutharika maintained a strong anti-corruption rhetoric, this was constantly undermined by his own extravagance. This started with Mutharika's decision in 2004 to move into the 300-room state house in Lilongwe. Most recently, Mutharika constructed an opulent palace at his Ndata farm in Thyolo, where he had also built the mausoleum where he will be put to rest next to his first wife, Ethel Mutharika, who died of cancer in 2007. Mutharika was further criticized following his decision to put his second wife, Callista, on a government payroll between 2010 and 2011.

On July 20, 2011, Malawians protested the deteriorating economic and governance conditions by staging unprecedented nation-wide demonstrations to demand economic and political reforms. Government responded in a heavy handed manner, killing 19 protesters while injuring and arresting hundreds more.

The late Mutharika's claim to be a true democrat was further sullied by his idolization of Malawi's former 'life president' Hastings Banda and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe. He surrounded himself with sycophants and was thus unable to appreciate how others thought of his leadership style. His egotism resulted in a failure to work with any of his two deputies, Cassim Chilumpha and Joyce Banda. Joyce Banda, who has since succeeded Mutharika as president, was expelled from the DPP in 2010 after refusing to accept the imposition of Mutharika's brother, Peter, as the ruling party's presidential candidate in the 2014 elections.

Mutharika was married to Ethel Zvauya Mutharika, who died of cancer on May 28, 2007. On May 1, 2010, Mutharika married his former Minister of Tourism, Callista Chapola Chimombo. He is survived by his second wife, Callista and four children from his first marriage.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Reflections on President Bingu wa Mutharika’s passing

The death of any individual is a very sad occasion for one's family and circle of friends. I feel for the late President's wife, children, grandchildren, family and friends on their loss.
There are, however, very few times when the passing of one individual might be a good thing for the greater good. Mutharika's death fits into this mold. Despite being touted for his economic credentials, the departed president has, single-handedly, brought the Malawi economy to its knees, to the point that people are not only queuing for fuel, but for basic commodities such as sugar.
His arrogance and know-it-all attitude has lost Malawi the goodwill of donors and friends alike. On Mutharika's watch, Malawi has lost long established friendships with the British, the Taiwanese, the Germans and many others. Closer to home, Malawi has picked up needless quarrels with neighbors such as Mozambique and Zambia, all largely because of the late Mutharika's obstinacy. Malawi has lost the confidence of international economic institutions, most notably the IMF and the World Bank because Mutharika believed that he, and he alone, had the monopoly of wisdom. While claiming that he was better placed to find a solution to Malawi's problems, he turned out to be the problem itself. As a result, the lives of Malawians, already burdened by the suffocating yokes of poverty, became even more intolerable.
Perhaps the greatest indication of Mutharika's poor leadership skills and his abject lack of foresight was how he squandered the overwhelming support of Malawians that propelled him to  electoral victory in 2009. It is reflective of how the fortunes had turned that Malawians are reported to be either apathetic or openly celebrating the passing of a man who only four years back had approval ratings of 83% (Afrobarometer R4). When the history books are written, they will have long sections detailing how Mutharika ceased to care about the people who elected him. He frequently called Malawians as an ungrateful people and other forms of slander and demanded to be adored and praised. The title of the chapter on his style of governance might simply repeat the old adage that power corrupts and that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
While it would be too simplistic to assume that Malawi's myriad problems will end with Mutharika's death, there is no doubt that this offers the country an opportunity to hit the reset button and get a fresh start. Mutharika's successor, by law, the Vice President, Joyce Banda, has the opportunity to make small changes that could have significant impact in the very short term. Most of Malawi's recent challenges, including those rooted in a myopic foreign exchange policy and the loss of donor support, can be easily and quickly be reversed. Granted, the new administration will need to think long and hard on how to address some of the long standing issues, including finding alternatives to tobacco, Malawi's main, but struggling, source of foreign exchange; how to address the perennial problems in the health, energy, education, agricultural and sanitation sectors to mention but a few examples.
However, I would expect there to be a lot of donor goodwill, with the likelihood of aid taps reopening soon as a sign of support for the new administration. Joyce Banda has the opportunity to step up and offer a new and more responsive type of leadership, one that can hopefully recognize that presidents are servants, not masters, of the people.
At the moment Mutharika breathed his last, Joyce Banda's political stars just lit up a lot more brightly. She now has a major head start over her rivals in the 2014 elections. Whilst previously she would have had to count on the sympathy vote of Malawians, she can now earn the confidence of voters by demonstrating that she has the abilities to take Malawi in a new and truly progressive direction. She can seize the opportunity and win over the trust of Malawians who have grown increasingly suspect of those in the corridors of power. She could, of course, squander that opportunity depending not only how she governs, but also the people she will surround herself with.
Banda's ascendancy to power raises a number of interesting constitutional and practical questions once more. What agenda is she going to pursue, the DPP's or that of her People's Party, even if Malawians have not had a chance to endorse it in an election? How is her relationship with Parliament going to be like? Will DPP legislators and the leadership that emerges, frustrate the new president's agenda the same way the late Mutharika's was between 2005 and 2009 when the opposition had a commanding parliamentary majority? Will Banda work with the current opposition parties, perhaps bringing some of them into her administration? These will be questions that will need to be asked and addressed.
As for the DPP, the future is not only very uncertain, but most bleak. I would venture to suggest the death of the party's patron and sole financier might signal the demise of the party too. In any event, the DPP was never an established party, considering that it has the dubious honor of never having held a convention, not even to formally endorse the party's constitution or manifesto. We often talk of briefcase parties as those that are a one man show. Well, the DPP might have had many people, but for all intents and purposes, it was run from the monies in Mutharika's briefcase. That, in my view, makes it a briefcase party. Now that the honor of the briefcase is gone, I would predict the party will follow very soon.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A fresh start for Malawi after Mutharika?

President Mutharika's sudden illness and his reported demise (still unconfirmed at the time of writing - 10:30pm Eastern Time, or 4:30am Malawi time) is obviously sad for members of his immediate family and friends as well as a few DPP loyalists. But this might be a good thing for Malawi as a nation.
Reading through the comments on Mutharika's sudden illness and reported death on social and online media, it is very clear there is very little love for him among the Malawi populace. For a man that won the 2009 elections so comprehensively, the commentary shows that he has squandered much of the public goodwill accorded him in the 2009 elections. In its place, the social commentary demonstrates much disapproval and hatred, as Malawians have had to suffer unprecedented hardships due in large part to Mutharika's arrogance and obstinacy.
So where does Malawi go from here? If the rumors of Mutharika's death are true or that he survives but comes back incapacitated and unfit to resume the reigns of power, Vice President Joyce Banda would take over according to the constitution. This would also position her ahead of the other presidential aspirants in the 2014 elections. This is of course assuming the DPP hierarchy sans Mutharika would allow a smooth transition and give up power without a fight, considering that Banda was expelled from the DPP way back in 2010. In a way, the current situation speaks volumes about the lack of foresight by Mutharika and his DPP stooges. By expelling Banda, they must have thought there would never be a situation such as the current one when the odds would turn in Banda's favor. Well, the odds have just turned and the DPP will be the main losers.
Fortunately, the DPP loss might turn out to be a great opportunity for Malawi to have a fresh start. The country can start mending fences again with countries and partners that have scampered off because of Mutharika's know-it-all attitude. There is likely to be a lot of goodwill for Malawi again and if we live up to our side of the bargain, perhaps we can start addressing the crippling economic challenges that have arisen over the last few years. The good thing for Joyce Banda is that this should not be difficult to do. And she will have a lot of support from Malawians. 
Of course all this will be academic if Mutharika makes a full recovery and returns to office. In which case, the first line of the Malawi national anthem becomes even more important now...'God bless our land of Malawi...' - because will need all the blessings to go through the challenges that will continue to face...