“I am not a ruler,” Malawi’s President Joyce Banda said as she sipped tea in State House in Lilongwe recently. Since the unexpected death of former president Bingu wa Mutharika (78) from a heart attack, she has been busy juggling both foreign and internal affairs.
She has moved quickly. In the past three months she has sold the former president’s private jets, devalued the kwacha by 50%, launched a maternal health initiative, persuaded the African Development Bank to lend Malawi $45-million and appealed to the United States and the United Kingdom for grants.
She also raised the ire of some of her fellow African Union heads of state by saying she would hand Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir over to the International Criminal Court should he enter the country to attend the annual summit.
“The issue of al-Bashir is a thorny one and you all remember that, at one point, the US suspended the $350-million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact with Malawi largely because we hosted the Sudanese leader [in October 2011]. Therefore, we can’t risk losing donor aid again,” Banda said.
Her refusal to toe the AU line was met with dismay by local business owners, who said they had lost income from cancelled bookings, as well as politicians. “Already, we’ve lost out, because we’ve failed to follow or abide by AU principles. As Africans, we should always be united in all things we do,” said Nicholas Dausi, spokesperson for the former ruling Democratic Progressive Party.
The new administration’s spokesperson, Moses Nkukuyu, defended the decision not to host to al-Bashir, saying it had been in the best interests of the country.
“We don’t think what we did is wrong … after all, some African countries have commended our position. We hope our action will set a precedent on the matter.”
Foreign Minister Ephraim Chiume said: “Malawi is running and we [the Cabinet] are all running with her.”
He welcomed the renewed partnership with the West as well as China, whose Export-Import Bank funded a new $90-million hotel and conference centre.
With about 85% of the population living in rural areas, Malawi is one of the world’s least-developed countries, despite large amounts of donor aid. The kwacha was devalued – long called for by the International Monetary Fund – to restore donor funding. According to Malawi’s vulnerability assessment committee, 1.6-million people are in need of food and will require support for the next three to eight months. Banda said she had “advised all leadership and political parties that this is not the time for politics, but for development”.
“She represents the type of leadership that Africa needs in the 21st century,” said Erieka Bennett, the head of the AU Diaspora Forum. “President Banda has the courage and tenacity to get things accomplished. Everywhere I go, Malawians tell me that they are wishing for her success.”