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Joyce Banda: Another President by Providence

As with Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria before her, Joyce Banda's improbable rise to the Malawian presidency comes with high expectations.
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President Joyce Banda speaking at a conference in 2010. Photograph by DFID.

“My first call is for all Malawians to forgive one another... After the period of mourning, there should be healing...getting everyone together, standing united and winning back the support of all the partners that have been lost, and moving on” said Joyce Banda in Lilongwe, shortly after she was sworn in as president of Malawi.

At that moment, perhaps it crossed Banda’s mind that thousands of kilometres north in Abuja, Nigeria, about two years earlier, Goodluck Jonathan the Nigerian president made a similar statement in a nationwide address in February 2010, shortly after he succeeded the deceased Umaru Musa Yar'adua to that office.

Like Jonathan, Banda’s journey to the presidency has been far from straightforward. Banda was much maligned and alienated as vice-president. Shortly after Bingu wa Mutharika‘s landslide victory in the 2009 presidential elections, Mutharika and Banda fell out leading to her expulsion from the ruling party – the Democratic Progressive Party – and her subsequent isolation from government.

When Mutharika’s attempts to get rid of his deputy and her constitutional right to replace him in case of an emergency failed, he alienated her and allowed his inner circle to hound Banda. Banda formed her own party – the People’s Party – and became one of Mutharika’s fiercest critics whilst retaining her position as vice-president.

Jonathan had been similarly elected as vice-president to the late President Umaru Yar’adua back in 2007 in elections deemed by local and international observers to be “badly flawed”. Though Jonathan and Yar’adua did not have a public falling out, the late president’s influential wife, his family and inner circle ensured Jonathan remained largely excluded from the real business of governance.

Furthermore, in both cases, the respective heads of state passed away in controversial and mysterious circumstances. Bingu wa Mutharika suffered a sudden cardiac arrest on April 5. Malawian newspapers reported that Mutharika died on the same day, with some suggesting that his corpse was flown to South Africa as a ploy to give the ruling party time to deal with the succession. Though slightly different in Nigeria, Yar’adua’s ill health was an open secret right before the elections in 2007. Initially diagnosed with kidney problems, he later suffered from a combination of lung cancer and the auto-immune disease Churg Strauss Syndrome, which led to his death in May 2010.

And the law won

The sudden passing of the heads of state in both situations led to fears of possible constitutional crises and power struggles marring the smooth transition of power. After Muthrika’s sudden death, members of his cabinet delayed officially confirming his death for about two days, before attempting to prevent Joyce Banda from succeeding him claiming that she had forfeited her vice-presidential rights when she was expelled from the ruling party and formed her own opposition party. “People went and made decisions, held meetings that were otherwise illegal”, Banda explained in an interview with Al-Jazeera shortly after her inauguration. Tension and uncertainty were further heightened because as Mutharika was widely known have been grooming his younger brother Peter Mutharika, Minister of Foreign Affairs, to succeed him.

However, the rule of law prevailed. Banda summoned the cabinet and Mutharika’s inner circle eventually conceded.

These events once again echoed those in Nigeria two years previously. Even before the passing away of Yar’adua, his inner circle was making surreptitious moves to prevent Jonathan from taking over as president. This first became evident when Yar’adua travelled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in November 2009 without officially handing over presidential duties to his deputy as the Nigerian constitution stipulates. Reports that filtered out and that were later confirmed by leaked US Embassy cables via wikileaks indicated that the country was actually run by the Yar’adua’s powerful wife alongside various of Yar’adua’s close advisors and select members of the cabinet popularly referred to as ‘the Cabal’. These extra-constitutional manoeuvres created tension in the Nigerian polity and there were fears of a military takeover or subversion of the rule of law. However, an expedient move by the National Assembly, ingeniously coined the “doctrine of necessity”, ensured the Jonathan became “Acting President” in Yar’adua’s absence and eventually became president after Yar’adua’s death.

Heaven sent

Slightly ironically, the peculiarity of the routes taken by Jonathan and Banda, and the sheer improbability of their presidencies, has arguably contributed to the high expectations heaped on them.

Belonging to none of the three dominant ethnic groups in Nigeria, it would have been extremely unlikely for Goodluck Jonathan, from the minority Ijaw ethnic group, to emerge as president within Nigeria’s socio-political dynamics of the time. Jonathan was then regarded in some circles with almost messianic fervour and it was not uncommon to hear him described as “God sent”, “God’s anointed” or “God’s chosen”.

Jonathan’s ethnic identity, the unique circumstances around his rise and his consolidation of authority and legitimacy via elections in 2011 outside the power-sharing agreement between North and South placed him firmly in history books, and have led to huge expectations for the transformation of Nigeria in terms of perennial power problems, corruption, poor living standards, and infrastructure.

Though Banda has made history by becoming the first female president of Malawi and southern Africa, and the second female president in Africa, she is not regarded through the same messianic prism as Jonathan was. But there are realistic expectations of Joyce Banda to address Malawi’s economic woes largely perceived to be brought about by Mutharika, firstly by rekindling Malawi’s relations with the bilateral donors who fell out with the late president. Adding a dramatic twist to Banda’s story, however, is the “prophesy” by the controversial but popular Nigerian preacher Pastor T. B. Joshua who allegedly predicted Mutharika’s death two months earlier. Others insist that the pastor had access to Mutharika’s medical records.

Greatness thrust upon them?

Despite the fateful rise of both Banda and Jonathan, economic and social development in their respective countries require more than a nudge from providence, prophesies by clairvoyant preachers or plain good luck. Focused and purposeful leadership is needed. Banda’s formidable presence on the Malawian political scene as a vociferous women’s rights activist and vocal opposition member suggest she just could handle Malawi’s economic and developmental challenges. Her bold moves in replacing some key players of the former regime such as Peter Mukhito, the police chief, Patricia Kaliati, the information minister, and Bright Malopa of the Broadcasting Corporation is indicative of her drive to consolidate power.

Back in 2010, Jonathan had “limited” experience, as he himself acknowledged, and was arguably “underwhelming” and “easily influenced” as leaked US Embassy cables suggested. These weaknesses should by now have been overcome, however, especially after securing a convincing victory in the 2011 elections and embarking on an ambitious transformation and reform agenda. Though Nigeria has remained troubled by corruption, electricity shortages, ethnic and regional polarisation, growing insecurity and, with the partial removal of fuel subsidy, high prices, Jonathan has three years of his term yet to turn things around.

Ultimately, it will be the political will demonstrated and exercised by the Malawian and Nigerian heads of state which will make the difference. Both rose to power because their respective countries managed to adhere to the rule of law and, as Banda rightfully noted, this “shows that Africans have grown in democracy...[but also that they will] have confidence in both men and women leading them as long as they have confidence that they will lead them well”.

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