Joyce Banda’s regime: Business (and politics) as usual

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In this blog, Clive Gabay gives us a taste of his recent research into Joyce Banda’s rise and rule, which is published in full in the Review of African Political Economy. He argues that Banda never marked the break from the political status quo, as donors claimed. His analysis of the political-economy of Banda’s regime helps to explain the continuities with Mutharika’s regime, and her political defeat in 2014.

In May 2014, Joyce Banda’s short-lived occupancy of Malawi’s State House came to an end, after she trailed third in the country’s presidential elections. If an inability to top the poll (or at least come in second) was surprising enough for outside observers, more surprising still was that the winner was Peter Mutharika, the brother of Banda’s late – and in many eyes, discredited – predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika. It was Mutharika who stood accused of seeking to delay news of his brother’s death in 2012, in order to buy the time necessary to provoke a military coup, thus blocking Banda (then vice-President) from ascending to the presidency, as was her constitutional right. That, just over two years later, Peter Mutharika could win the country’s presidential election, and his brother’s party could secure a parliamentary (although not working) majority, seemed an unlikely scenario in April 2012. However, this outcome has everything to do with the patrimonial form of politics practiced by Joyce Banda under the very noses of Western media and donors, who held her up as a beacon of democratic practice in Africa.

Although my recent article for Review of African Political Economy was written prior to the 2014 elections, much of what I argued there provides a context for understanding how Banda lost the election. Back in 2012, Joyce Banda was heralded domestically and internationally as a breath of fresh air. Domestically, Banda seemed the precise opposite of her predecessor. Bingu wa Mutharika had become increasingly authoritarian during his second five-year presidential term, to the point where civil society activists were being arrested, homes burned in arson attacks, and protestors shot dead in the street. Although the country had calmed down by the time of his death in April 2012, the economic conditions that had sparked protests the previous July, and Mutharika’s behaviour, remained volatile. Joyce Banda was thus welcomed domestically as a calming figure on the political stage, someone who had openly opposed Mutharika’s behaviour and political nepotism. Although Mutharika’s vice-President, Banda had effectively been ousted from his ruling Democratic Peoples’ Party in 2011 over a number of issues, including Bingu’s attempts to position his brother for the presidency. Banda’s background in the women’s movement in Malawi gave many hope that she would prove to be a more transparent and pluralist ruler than those who had preceded her in the role. Internationally, Banda was feted as only Africa’s second female president, and as someone with whom donors, who had withdrawn budget support to Mutharika, could work. Their support was withdrawn on the basis of Mutharika’s authoritarian behaviour, but was also related to his refusal to devalue the Malawian Kwacha, as demanded by the IMF.

Banda’s promises to fix Mutharika’s economic policies (which centred on meeting IMF demands to devalue the Kwacha, making prices in this extremely poor country shoot up by nearly 40% overnight), in addition to her pronouncements on graft and transparency, endeared her to the international community. She was anointed ‘Madame President’ by the Guardian newspaper, whilst David Cameron congratulated Banda on her victory in the UK Parliament, and she became the first Malawian president to be invited to and speak at the prestigious Chatham House think tank in London. However, upon visiting the country at this time it was immediately clear that things were not all that they seemed. The first newspaper I picked up was headlined with an article about sacks of maize being distributed in rural areas stamped with the new President’s initials. What became known as the ‘JB Maize Saga’ was never resolved. It was never clear whether Banda had used her own wealth to distribute grain for political ends, or (ab)used state funds, but in either case Banda was repeating tactics used by all of her predecessors. Previous leaders had, to varying degrees, been accused of, or prosecuted for, various crimes relating to corruption and graft whilst in office, including the dispersal of food and other materials for political gain.

This was not an isolated incident. There was the plethora of foreign trips, including a room at Claridges in London for her husband during the London Olympics. There was the sale of the presidential jet (purchased at great expense by Bingu wa Mutharika). This had been promised early on by Banda, and taken as a sign of her drive to rid government of frippery and excess. In practice, it transpired, this sale allowed Banda to continue using the jet, whilst the new owner (an arms firm) benefitted from government contracts. Opponents of the Banda government were also subjected to similar tactics to those deployed by Banda’s predecessors. For instance, a pro-Mutharika journalist, Justice Mponda, was arrested on charges of treason for spreading a false rumour that Joyce Banda had resigned.

One way in which we can observe the political economy of Banda’s ascent to power, and her behaviour once in power, is by exploring the fate of Mulli Brothers. The Mulli Brothers was a large company with multiple commercial interests in Malawi, which experienced significant expansion during the Mutharika era. Whilst there is no official process by which political parties in Malawi make public their sources of income, it was widely and regularly reported in Malawian media that Mulli Brothers maintained close relationships with the Mutharika government and family, in return for government contracts and other political favours. Rumours of this relationship, founded or not, perhaps explains why Mulli Brothers’ properties were attacked during the anti-Mutharika protests in July 2011, causing an estimated $4 million worth of damage. They also explain the victimisation of this company by the Banda government.

In the autumn of 2012, local media reported that the new government had barred Mulli Brothers and its subsidiaries from receiving government contracts, and would also not be honouring any existing ones. The company was subsequently subject to investigations over money laundering, corruption, and tax evasion. Rumours circulated in a whirling of intrigue in Malawi’s press and commentariat throughout 2012 and 2013: this was an act of political revenge, an attempt to put distance between the new government and Mulli Brothers, an effort to cripple the DPP’s rumoured financial backer before the 2014 elections, or an opportunity to divest Mulli Brothers of its assets for others to profit from them under new ownership. It seemed that the Banda government was not acting very differently from any of its predecessors in dealing with those elements of the business elite that it deemed an obstacle to its political ambitions.

The experience of a different beneficiary of the Mutharika regime helps to reinforce this impression of ‘politics as usual’. The Portuguese-owned Mota Engil became increasingly ubiquitous during the Mutharika era. For instance, Mota Engil was awarded road construction contracts worth $120 million during Mutharika’s two terms as president (2004-2012). This represented over half the value of Mota Engil’s contracts in Malawi, since it began operating in the country during the mid 1990s. Despite several rumours and accusations of contracts awarded untransparently under the Mutharika government, Mota Engil was not considered ‘party political’. Therefore, it was not divested of its business interests in Malawi by the Joyce Banda government, including those that were evidently awarded in an opaque fashion.

This differential treatment was entirely characteristic of how politics in Malawi has been practiced since democratisation in 1994. In each case the company’s fate was determined by how profitable they were to the government:. The Mulli Brothers, it seems, were unprofitable if not dangerous, and the government sought to to distance itself from and/or reduce the financial leverage of the firm assumed to provide key support to the political opposition. Mota Engil, however, were not dangerous – they did not appear to financially back a particular political party. In fact, they were potentially very profitable: bringing scare foreign investment into the country. .

Whilst Western journalists and policy-makers celebrated Banda’s ascent to power, the events just described go some way to problematizing the idea that she marked a transition in the form and content of rule in Malawi, and embodying a new democratic turn amongst African leadership. We, of course, might consider Banda to have been an unwitting passenger in what is a long post-colonial history of para-statal business enterprise and politico-economic manipulation in Malawi. The case of ‘JB Maize’, however, illustrates the degree to which Banda was prone to such practices. That the maize was being distributed directly by Banda and her full entourage at political rallies did nothing to dampen the speculation that this was simply business as usual. Similarly, Banda’s ultimately futile efforts to have the 2014 elections declared null and void only after it became clear she would lose, even when evidence had been accumulating for several months that the Malawi Electoral Commission was not fit for the purpose of running the tripartite elections, simply smacked of a desperation familiar to Malawians who had already seen their two other post-democratisation presidents attempt to have their term limits extended.

Ultimately, the Joyce Banda hailed by the Guardian in 2012 as ‘Madame President’ never really existed. The people of Malawi knew this all along, and, not surprisingly at all, sent their message at the polls, leaving Banda with a paltry 20% of the vote. Whilst external observers may have been surprised at this eventuality, the political economy of Banda’s rule helps us to understand just why she was so unpopular, and just how removed she was from the images held of her in the West.

1 COMMENT

  1. Excellent synthesis of a non starter for the good governance, democratization and development of the country.

    Alas, there might reasons to fear that it will go on under the new regime.

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