Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Joyce Banda's Art of Taking Malawians Backwards

Her high-point came from a low.
She rode to the presidency of Malawi on the back of a misfortune.
Former president, Bingu wa Mutharika, while discharging duties of his office, collapsed at the New State House in Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe. The New State House, by design, served as both his tax-payers’ financed mansion and his tax-payers’ financed office.
President Bingu wa Mutharika, probably pondering on ways through which to lift Malawi up from the crises it was facing- fuel, forex (and hope?) shortage- suddenly collapsed to the ground in his office. It could not have been the ground, in its literal form; just that he still fell from his position, and went unnaturally lower than his normal position. That was a collapse- it doesn’t matter whether he collapsed to the carpet of what used to be his office and home, or remained fixed to his chiefly chair.
He had his hopes, and aspirations. These hopes and aspirations focused on betterment. An ‘up’ (better) world so to speak. A world whose standards kept on rising.
Attendants, so flabbergasted by the sudden fall of a man who thought so highly of himself and the nation, rushed him to the ill-equipped Kamuzu Central Hospital in Lilongwe. Clinicians, so surprised to have such a high-level patient, rushed about town, looking for this equipment or that.
For nothing. Really. At that hour, his life was not meant to be served.
In the nine years he had been at the helm of power in Malawi, he held the bigger picture of the country’s health system he could, certainly, not have thought of stocking, to the teeth, Kamuzu Central Hospital. But here he was, looking for help in a facilities-depleted heath institution.
To deprive a healthcare institution of drugs, medical equipment and other resources is to deprive it of life.
No life can be drawn from such lifeless institutions.
And, so, Mutharika died. He departed Malawi some thirty minutes to noon. These 33 minutes are double-faced and symbolic. They represent the two years that were remaining on his Second-Term bill. And, yet, Mutharika still died, on April 5, 2012.
Though the official stand is that he died on April 6, upon arrival at One Military Hospital in South Africa, the truth is that Mutharika died the moment he collapsed at the New State House, plunging Malawi into a record-low of sadness. The sadness was neck-high.
Never, in the history of the Southern African nation, has a president died while in office.
Mutharika is now not just Malawi’s former president; he is Malawi’s late president.
From Mutharika’s low rose Joyce Banda.
She rose on the back of bad luck. For her to rise, a high-flying president had to fall. Just like that.
Banda, the country’s first female president- and Southern Africa’s first at that- quickly stamped her authority after being sworn-in on April 7, 2012.
Even before hiring her new cabinet, she fired former Information and Civic Education Minister, the media-friendly Patricia Kaliati.
As long as Kaliati sat at the helm of information, Malawian journalists never starved of news. In fact, journalists will tell you that flamboyant Kaliati would start responding to one’s question even before the interviewer was half-way through it.
To every argument, every misunderstanding, every passing of a strong wind; Kaliati wanted to pend her audible signature to it. She wanted to attach government colours to it.
Along with Presidential spokesperson, Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba, they left Malawi on the wheeels, on the go, and on its toes. Good old Kaliati. Independence-witness Ntaba!
Kaliati never ostracised media practitioners, be it from private and public media. She could even grant interviews to the, then, pro-opposition Joy 89.6 FM. She would speak to each and every journalist who would pick up the line, and find her at the end of the line.
So, it was so paradoxical- a woman Information Minister becoming the first casualty (male or female) to the country’s first woman President.
Kaliati had plucked a few feathers- Banda’s back feathers, to be precise- by speaking on behalf of cabinet ministers (Democratic Progressive Party, DPP) loyalists who stood up in arms to oppose the ascendancy of the former Vice-President Banda. They propagated their views through a late-night press conference held at the State-run Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) television offices.
Even when it was clear that Mutharika had passed on, MBC still feared the cabinet ministers. MBC still feared the mighty DPP. That explains MBC management’s decision to allow those who have now come to be known as “The Mid-night Six’ address the anxious nation during that night of April 6, 2012- less than 12 hours before Banda was to be sworn-in.
 A President, in Malawi, is no ordinary being. A President, in Malawi, can resurrect even after 40 hours of death. A President, in Malawi, still rules until they are rocked, double as much, in their expensive caskets. Until they have their hands tied to their backs, and rocked in expensive caskets, they are alive.
 Given a chance, the apprehensive nation would even prefer to have them cremated, just to ensure that they are truly gone.
Without that assurance- a Death Certificate is no assurance or guarantee, mind you-  MBC still  believed the dead president to be 'alive'.
That, exactly, is what happened during the 'darkest' hour of the ‘Mid-Night Six’. They capitalized on the fear of a dead president to ‘fear’(threaten)  the President-designate into a great sense of hopelessness.
Of the ‘Mid-Night Six’ – who included former Local Government Minister, Henry Mussa; Energy and Mines Minister, Goodall Gondwe; Youth and Welfare Minister, Symon Vuwa-Kaunda; Deputy Minister in the Office of the President and Cabinet, Nicholas Dausi; Patricia Kaliati of Information- only Kaliati, a woman, faced the chop pending Banda’s appointment of a new cabinet.
April 7 now seems such a long time. Banda has clocked one month, eight days in office. Time, in Malawi, now ticks towards May 2014, when Malawians go to the polls to elect a new president and Members of Parliament and, possibly, councilors who will, once again, make Local Government politics sensible again. Power to the people is no good than ‘meat in every pot’ slogans if the people do not have their voice heard. Assurance itself, that people will, somehow, get their way inspires hope in the people, and the will to go on. Without the local government elections, Malawians have been deprived the chance to hope.
This, sadly, is the calamity that has befallen Malawi for over 10 years now. Local Government elections have been forsaken, disregarded, and discarded by those corrupted by power. But Banda could do well to restore citizens’ trust in their government by making sure that the country holds Local Government elections.
For that to happen, however- according to Malawi Law Society Honorary Secretary Bright Theu- Members of Parliament need to amend some provisions of Acts that govern the running of such elections as Parliamentary, Presidential and Local Government in the country. Without that, it will be like arresting a bird by attaching its limbs to bigger wings. It will fly higher, and never be reached again. All because you have given it the means to go away.
Once this harmonization of the laws is over, Malawi will be ready for democracy again.
As things stand now, the country is yet to embrace democracy. The good will may be there, the sentimentality in the donor community may be rampant,  but, if not well-harnessed, it has always been short-lived.
While political analysts feel that Malawi is ripe for positive changes in its societal and economic interface, the truth is that the country has a long way to go. What with Banda taking Malawians for a ride, and unimaginably backward!
Malawians are moving backward? Yes. For one, Banda is a slow-acting President. She has work in her hands, and she is doing nothing.
The work in question is the cheating by Finance Minister Ken Lipenga. Lipenga has not cheated in his capacity as Banda’s Finance Minister; he cheated as Finance Minister in the reign of the President who fell and died.
The fallen president had introduced one popular work of genius-in-doom: the Zero-Deficit Budget in response to the folding of hands by Malawi’s traditional development partners.
In 2012, Mutharika had grown so much wings as to expel British High Commissioner to Malawi , Fergus Cochraine-Dyet  in a row that started with a dead thing: a leaked cable to London that described Mutharika as a dictator.
“Malawians should not allow their leaders to be ridiculed by foreigners,” Mutharika had said of Dyet. “Even in America, this cannot be condoned.”
That was the defiance of the time; the defiance at the peak of Mutharika’s hour.
And he stood his ground.
But, like the expulsion of Dyet, not all was well with the Zero-Deficit Budget. The fiscal plan failed to meet financial expectations, forcing the people at the revenue-collection body, the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA), to cheat on tax collections. Accountants at MRA forgot the principles of accounting and started treating debt as revenue, and, thus, hoodwinking Malawians into believing that the Zero-Deficit Budget was working.
MRA borrowed K30 billion from commercial banks such as Standard Bank, NBS Bank, Malawi Savings Bank, Inde Bank, National Bank of Malawi, among others. These funds were deposited in MRA’s accounts as revenue.
These figures were later presented in Parliament by Lipenga, as part of his Mid-Budget Review report. He thought his game of cheating was over but, boyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!
The moment he took his seat, there , wearing a black jacket and blue neck-tie, stood a Member of Parliament from the Southern region district of Balaka, Malawi Forum for Unity and Development (Mafunde) president George Mnesa.
Government thought it was a nightmare, and might have asked why Balaka MPs are always causing problems.
Government might have remembered musician Lucius Banda who, as MP for Balaka Central Constituency, introduce a motion to impeach Mutharika over poor human rights and governance records. The main reason was revenge. Mutharika had dumped Lucius’ party, the United Democratic Front (UDF), unceremoniously and formed his own Democratic Progressive Party.
The UDF saw this as grotesque and wanted to flex its political muscle in Parliament. In the end, it is Lucius, and not the UDF, that lost.
One good ‘archaeologist’ from the, then, ruling DPP  ‘remembered’ that Lucius had a bogus, and not genuine, Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE certificate), tipped Mutharika, who set his legal machine rolling.
Lucius was found guilty for forging MSCE certificate, and given the jail term he deserved.
But it was not the jail term that was questionable, it was the manner in which Lucius’ past was ‘dug’ that raised eyebrows.   His prosecution, though professionally executed, was politically-motivated. That is how the regime of Mutharika worked, after all.
Now, in the corridors of the Chinese-built parliament, stood Mnesa. Mnesa pulled a shocker from his pocket, telling the nation the MRA tax collection figures were doctored to suit the political ambitions of those in power.
Predictably, Lipenga- as Finance Minister- stood up, and trashed Mnesa’s sentiments. Lipenga, a creative writer of sorts, put Mnesa’s words in the frame of some kangaroo court out to executive judgement in no-man’s land.
It was quiet a novella for Lipenga, speaking short, purposeful poetic words as if he was reciting a poem.
The nation was surprised, and, inevitably, took Mnesa for the naughty boy who vomits in the dinner plate his mother works so hard to raise to high cookery standards. But Mnesa stood his ground.
When Khwauli Msika, MP  for the Alliance for Democracy, moved a private motion bill to have the issue investigated by Parliament, Lipenga got angry on behalf of Mutharika, and fought tooth and nail against the same. He, along with the likes of Symon Vuwa-Kaunda, finally got their way when they proposed that Mnesa carries out the investigation at his own cost.
It was so bad a cost to Mnesa. But he stood his ground. The investigation never got to the heads for reasons attributable to resource-constraints.   In that little moment, the government had won against the people again.
The people’s wishes always ended in calamity, then; as Malawi’s leaders grew wings on their heads and discarded sense at the wave of their left hand.
The DPP cohorts never imagined that Mutharika would soon disappear from the scene. All these developments took place in March, early March. I March. By April 5, all the truth would be known.
When the government changed hands, half truths begun to appear, including this big truth.
But Banda, who has maintained Lipenga as Finance Minister (she even sent him to discuss with IMF officials in Washington last month; which discussions were successful), is failing to stamp her ground on this issue by firing Lipenga.
Lipenga, for his part, has said: “I will not resign because I was not aware of the facts. I learnt of the whole truth when I instituted my own investigations. In fact, I have been briefed that MRA has been cooking up figures, and that this is not the first time…”.
Hear, hear, hear! Confessions, confessions, confessions!
Revelations are also coming in that MRA has never been audited for 10 'full' years. 10 years, no brush passed through MRA's books! Now, if that is no disaster, there never will.
But Banda, as a slow-acting woman, has not been drawn into taken requisite action.
She has chosen to act as Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Dr. Bakili Muluzi and, more recently, Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika: They heard from nobody but their own heads.
Muluzi did it during the Third Term bid saga. He was so intoxicated with power he wanted a third term against the dictates of the Constitution. He failed miserably.
Dr. Banda, even in the face of pressure from development partners, refused to take the easy path to honour by resigning and paving the way for democratic governance. He faced the blood-less hand of the ballot, and lost to Muluzi. He tried to cap some honour by congratulating Muluzi even before the final election results, but his real hour of honour had just passed the corner.
Mutharika failed to hear from the voice of reason on devaluation, good governance, and executive extravagance. Fate took him away on April.
Now Banda is worse. Already, she has dilly-dallied to make crucial decisions, as in Lipenga’s case. She also practices nepotism in that, wherever she goes, she picks with her a blood-sister- who is now  ‘eating’ free government money for being in the (foreordained) privileged position of sharing the same breast with a woman who, after all those years (including sad years in an abusive relationship after marrying at the age of 22) was meant to become Malawi’s President, after all.
This is the fate of Malawi: Having leaders who don’t listen but to themselves. Such leaders always fall in the end, and regret all the lost opportunities that would have cultivated only honour for them.
Apart from South Africa's independence icon, Nelson Mandela, no African leader takes to that honourable path any more.

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