President Joyce Banda has a strong vision of the future
In 2009, Joyce Banda was elected Malawi’s first female vice president, but only months later she found her job in jeopardy when she refused to back the nomination of President Bingu Wa Mutharika’s brother Peter as successor of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Mutharika fired her as vice president of the DPP for “anti-party” activities, but thankfully there was no impeachment. She continued to serve as the legal vice-president of Malawi until 5 April 2012, when President Bingu Wa Mutharika suffered a fatal heart attack. When Mutharika’s cabinet sought to block Vice President Banda from becoming president, Army Commander Henry Odillo assured her of his support.
Days later, Banda, leader of the newly established People’s Party, was sworn in as the first female president of Malawi, granting her, until May 2014, the opportunity to bring lasting change to one of the world’s most impoverished countries.
One of the many items on her agenda was to arrange a meeting with IEEE Women in Engineering Magazine Editor-in-Chief Karen Panetta. In a stately New York hotel, President Banda sat with Panetta and told her about the drought, the children in orphanages, and the abundant African sunshine whose power she wished she could harness. In return, Panetta informed Banda about the international community of IEEE Members who were willing to tackle such challenges. They spoke about online education, solar trailers capable of powering 40 homes, and volunteers who could train local teachers in technology. The 10-min meeting turned into an hour, and when Her Excellency departed, she called it the best meeting she had had in New York.
President Banda has fought against the tide to bring lasting change to Malawi. She has sought innovation in every area, including health care, education, entrepreneurship, and agriculture. Throughout it all she has battled against corruption and greed and has been a tireless advocate for women and children. Her goal has not wavered: to improve life for her people.
A Historical View
Malawi’s recent history is one of upheaval and transition. The small country in the south of Africa is only 50 years old, which means that this former British colony of Nyasaland gained its independence roughly around the time Beatlemania was sweeping the world.
Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda (no relation), a formerly imprisoned political hero, was named prime minister of this new country. Two years later, Banda proclaimed himself president of the Republic of Malawi and established a strict one-party state that soon faced international condemnation for multiple human rights violations.
In 1993, when Banda became seriously ill, the people of Malawi voted overwhelmingly for a multiparty democracy, and newly elected President Bakili Muluzi freed political prisoners and re-established freedom of speech.
Since then, the young nation has struggled to find its democratic footing. Over the years, the country has moved through a series of governing parties that have faced accusations of treason, corruption, and economic mismanagement. Peaceful Malawi sometimes hovers on the edge of violence, including antigovernment protests in 2011 that left 19 people dead.
In this small impoverished country, there is much at stake. Malawi is a land-locked South African country roughly the size of Pennsylvania and is agrarian with a high dependence on the declining exports of tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, and tea. Drought, flooding, and low maize yields in have led to acute food shortages and rationing.
Infant and maternal mortality are high. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 10% of the adult population in Malawi lives with HIV/AIDS.
Foreign aid has historically accounted for an astounding 40% of Malawi’s revenue. Yet, within the last year of Bingu Wa Mutharika’s presidency, Malawi had become isolated from much of the donor community. Britain, the United States, Germany, Norway, the European Union, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank had all suspended aid.
It would be impossible to move toward a sustainable Malawian economy without enduring short-term pain. With re-election looming in May 2014, President Banda was faced with a decision: was she willing to implement unpopular but necessary policies that could very well cost her the next election?
President Banda has always had a deep love for her country and a strong vision for its future. “I dream of each village in Malawi being transformed by access to markets, education, health care, food, water, and shelter,” she says. “I dream of an economy in Malawi where this vision can be sustained long term and where the income of each Malawian is increased.”
Once she became president, she did not wait long to act. But before there could be new hospitals, schools, or roads, Banda had to address corruption and devalue the currency, actions that she knew could come at great political cost.
To President Banda, though, there could be no other path to economic sustainability: “This vision will not come to fruition as long as Malawi is dependent on donors to prop it up,” she says. “To me, the clearest way for Malawi to become less dependent on donors is a two-pronged approach of first unlocking the economy and income for Malawians and secondly, reforming and streamlining the current government expenditures.”
Devaluation of Malawi’s currency would correct existing trade imbalances, and yet, for Malawi, the benefits of devaluation promised to be much greater. Under Bingu Wa Mutharika, donor assistance had been frozen in large part because of his refusal to accept the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) requirement to devalue the currency. According to the IMF, this devaluation was necessary for Malawi to have a fighting chance at becoming self-sustaining.
A month after taking office, President Banda devalued the Malawian kwacha by a third against the dollar. She also unpinned the kwacha from the dollar, allowing the exchange rate of the kwacha to ride with the free market.
Devaluation did make the cost of Malawian exports such as tobacco and sugarcane more competitive on the global market. Yet, there was a reason Bingu Wa Mutharika had refused to devalue the currency himself—imports also became much more expensive domestically, and, in this case, the devaluation of the kwacha led to a greater surge in the inflation rate than expected. Cost of living increases led to protests and demands for higher wages for government workers. Some Malawians were pushed deeper into poverty. President Banda took a big hit for this, and she worked hard to quickly stabilize the currency alongside promoting a free market.
As economists hoped, there were promising signs of stabilization. As of early 2014, the kwacha was appreciating thanks to increased donor flow as well as tobacco sales. According to a 17 January 2014 IMF press release, 79 million of a US$156 million 2012 Extended Credit Facility Arrangement had so far been approved for disbursement to Malawi.
Soon after taking office, President Banda faced what has come to be known as cash-gate, a corruption scandal where millions of government funds were being siphoned through loopholes in Malawi’s Integrated Financial Management System payment platform.
Most in Malawi understand that the scandal began under Bingu Wa Mutharika and was merely inherited by Banda. Many believe that Bingu Wa Mutharika knew and chose not to take action. President Banda faced the corruption head on, locking up civil servants across all levels that were found guilty of stealing from the national treasury. Amid this clean-up, she not only faced accusations of her own involvement but also lost entire villages of voters as payback for arrests.
Still, Banda did not sweep anything under the rug. She pushed for zero tolerance because the consequences otherwise were so dire. To Banda, corruption took away from everything she was trying to achieve: “Less children will receive an education. Less Malawians will have access to health care. Less fertilizer will reach the local farmer. Less resources (will be available) to help reform the private sector and unlock the economy. And (there will be) more donor dependence.”
Lifting the Economy
As Banda worked to find solid economic footing and rebuild public trust in the government, she also took steps to lift the economy. She looked to private development partners across areas such as agriculture, health care, education, tourism, and mining. By providing incentives to expand and invest as well as freedom to grow, Banda hoped to “increase access to training, technologies, and other advancements that (could) help our economy leapfrog into the global market.”
According to the president, USAID and the Department for International Development have helped to unlock markets for agricultural supply chains. Various nongovernmental organizations have helped to increase crop yield, access to markets, and input subsidies with extension services to the local farmers.
Banda also made plans to move farmland from a single growing season to two growing seasons to provide for both economic development and food security. She believes this could be achieved through a nationwide effort to train local subsistence farmers in best agricultural practices while also providing access to irrigation technologies.
According to the WHO, one out of 36 Malawian women are at risk of dying while giving birth. In the face of this crisis, Banda not only worked hard to improve facilities, technologies, and training in the health-care sector, but specifically launched the Presidential Initiative for Safe Motherhood, which has the best chance of success if embraced by the tribal chiefs of Malawi’s over 20,000 villages. Support of the tribal chiefs is necessary to bring modern medicine to villages deeply rooted in ancient Malawian traditions. One of the three areas of focus, therefore, is community mobilization. Other areas include the construction of maternity waiting homes and the training of community midwives.
Health-care initiatives like this one are not only about basic human rights, Banda says, but also help raise household income levels. “A mother dies or left with complications from childbirth, there is the loss of her income, but also the other children may not be able to continue in schooling. That obviously affects their income in the future and the future of Malawi.”
Primary and secondary education have always been particularly important to Banda, who left an abusive husband in 1981 and understands how instrumental education is to empowering women and youth. When she left her husband at the age of 25, she became a successful entrepreneur, founding numerous organizations in support of women, from the National Association of Business Women to the Market Women Activities in Development.
The People’s Party 18-chapter manifesto states, “The youth are an asset of our nation; they are energetic, adventurous, innovative, industrious, healthy, and willing to learn.” To this end, Banda worked to improve access to education as well as quality and kept a strategic focus on technical, vocational, and enterprise training. She believes investing in education across the board will slow the labor import while raising access to jobs and increasing income.
Banda sees tourism as “the next big margin for the growth of the economy” for this warm heart of Africa with its breathtaking scenery and subtropical climate. But with few direct flights into Malawi, access is limited. Banda worked to develop an open skies policy for frequent and competitive air travel to Malawi as well as to revive the defunct Malawian Airlines under the auspices of Ethiopian Airlines.
Unexpected Election Results
As they headed into the 20 May 2014 polls, President Banda and the People’s Party hoped that the public would vote to give her five more years to continue the many initiatives she had started.
The elections were to be the nation’s first tripartite elections for president, members of parliament, and local government councilors. Twelve candidates ran for president, with four considered front-runners, President Banda and Peter Mutharika among them.
Things quickly became chaotic. The electoral commission encountered many logistical challenges, and numerous irregularities were reported. Among the potential issues were ballots tampered with or discarded and party observers paid off to report falsified numbers. With over 100 complaints filed, President Banda implored the independent electoral commission to investigate.
One irregularity was apparent: in some areas, candidates received more votes than the possible number of registered voters. With the tallying process of the independent electoral commission (MEC) thus compromised, the MEC switched to manually tallying from previously aggregated tally sheets and continued its counting.
Four days past election day, though, President Banda, with support of the attorney general, invoked a clause in the constitution to nullify the election process since the commission was not taking other complaints into account. She declared a new election to be held in 90 days, and, to show she was not seeking personal gain, she sadly announced that she would step aside in the new election.
While injunctions were filed by parties to challenge the legality of Banda’s use of the constitution, other parties agreed the irregularities were too great and demanded a recount.
The MEC announced an individual ballot recount of all 7 million ballots, and the country braced for the 25 days to six months it could take for a winner to be declared but then the Malawian High Court ordered that Malawian electoral law, which requires that a winner be announced within eight days of elections, be upheld. Well before the recount could be completed, the MEC announced a winner—Peter Mutharika. President Banda conceded defeat with honor and grace and asked the people of Malawi to support their new president.
She also asks the members of the IEEE community, whose skills and innovations are instrumental, to build strong sustainable frameworks in areas such as agriculture, vocational training, and health care, for help. She reaches out and requests strategies to help with Malawi’s continued progress and advancement. To those who may have experience in irrigation technologies, for example, or who have ideas on how to increase crop yield, or who have used technology to bring medicine to remote areas, Malawi still needs your expertise. Regardless of the outcome of the election, Joyce Banda rises above politics in hopes that by bringing global attention to Malawi, the community at large will take up the work she has begun.
—Katianne Williams is a freelance writer specializing in the technology field.