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Malawi: Out with the Old, In with the New?

Joyce Banda has a rare opportunity to transform Malawi's political culture.
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Making way for change? Protests against former president Bingu wa Mutharika in Blantyre in July last year. Photograph by Travis Lupick.

“Don’t worship me,” President Joyce Banda of Malawi told her new minister of information Moses Kunkuyu as he was sworn in. “I don’t expect you to go on TV singing about me.”

Kunkuyu was inaugurated as one of a handful of major personnel changes Joyce Banda has made since becoming southern Africa’s first female president, having risen to the position in an extraordinary twist of fate.

Just a week earlier, before the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, Banda had been about as far from the centre of Malawian politics as it is possible to be while still officially holding the office of vice president. Completely ostracised by Mutharika and his ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), she had taken on the increasingly risky role of being the government’s noisiest critic.

When Mutharika’s died unexpectedly – an event welcomed by some Malawians angry at his administration’s incompetence – Malawi’s political topography was recast with a speed quite new to a country accustomed to more gradual transitions. Not since the Cabinet Crisis of 1964 when four ministers were dismissed by then president Hastings Banda after presenting him with proposals designed to limit his powers, and other ministers resigned in solidarity, have Malawian politics been reconfigured quite so rapidly.

Chief of chiefs

When it became apparent that the presidency would hand over to the vice president in accordance with the Malawian constitution, the most pertinent concerns surrounded the fact Banda’s party only comprised of a handful of MPs.

Yet, before Bingu’s death was even officially announced, DPP MPs began flocking across the parliamentary floor for Banda’s People’s Party.

“These are the same people who expelled Mrs Banda from the ruling party and went all over the place vilifying her,” Blessings Chinsinga, political scientist from the University of Malawi told Africa Confidential. “Their pledge of loyalty is not genuine. They are just opportunists looking for favours.”

The main insight afforded by the remarkable alacrity with which the old Mutharika order has crumbled and been replaced in the past weeks is that power remains intensely centralised in the person of the president, even 18 years into Malawi’s multi-party democracy.

And here lies Banda’s dilemma. Strong executive power is exactly what she needs in order to address the raft of problems she has inherited. Yet, at the same time, Banda must know that the over-concentration of power in the presidency is precisely what has led, time and again, to government failures in Malawi.

The most valuable legacy she could leave the country would be to reduce the political-cultural fixation on the presidency and open up space for the legislature and other institutions of government to function independently. It is too early to tell whether her first few major decisions – including the replacement of high-profile political figures – represent a step in this direction or provide evidence of the contrary.

Spring clean

Banda’s first sackings were perhaps unsurprising and were welcomed by many. Inspector General of the Police Peter Mukhito, for example, was a close ally of Mutharika, has been strongly implicated in the murder of student activist Robert Chasowa, and was widely accused of mishandling the July 20 protests last year.

The firing of sharp-tongued Information Minister Patricia Kaliati was no less out of the blue. She had made her position somewhat untenable with the bizarre, rambling appearance she made on local television after Mutharika was taken to South Africa. Flanked by a small cadre of not especially senior ministers, she refused to offer the expected confirmation of Mutharika’s death, instead announcing that Banda was ineligible to take over as president on the grounds that she had formed her own party. The nation braced itself for a full-blown power struggle until Army Commander General Henry Odillo warned the DPP cabal that the army would be unlikely to back an “illegal government”. The next day Malawi’s new Madam President was sworn in.

Banda’s third sacking was, on the face of it, as uncontroversial as those of Kaliati and Mukhito. Under Bright Malopa, the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) had been a mouthpiece for the Mutharika government, pillorying Banda whenever it bothered to report on her. Malopa admitted as much, saying the abuse was part of “a disengagement policy as directed by my bosses”. It is little wonder Banda wanted him gone.

However, while the move to sack Malopa may look innocuous, it was in fact an instance of exactly the kind of overextension of executive power that Banda must try to avoid. The position of CEO at MBC is subject to the MBC board – it is not directly answerable to the president. This may seem pedantic, but when one considers the history of Malawian institutions being assimilated within the control of State House, it turns out to be a crucial point.

Banda is already charting a fine line and Malawians and analysts alike will be keeping a close eye on the new president's actions looking for indications as to what her administration will hold. Will the death of one autocrat merely to give way to the rule of another – one who is perhaps more benevolent, but perhaps not – or could Mutharika’s death allow for a much more fundamental transformation of the “big man” political culture?

In the coming weeks, months and years, one thing that may prove to be the litmus test for Malawi’s transition is the inquiry that has been launched into the Robert Chasowa case.

A thorough investigation of one of the most shameful events of Mutharika’s rule – and an event that holds the popular imagination – could provide an opportunity for some political reflexivity and self-analysis. If the death of Chasowa can come to be understood as the result of not just the malfeasance of a handful of vicious individuals, but as a symptom of a much wider structural and cultural malaise in the way politics is practiced in Malawi, then the post-Mutharika moment may yet turn out to be a truly transformative one.

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