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A Welcome Woman’s Touch At The Helm

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The death of president Bingu wa Mutharika, in early April, was sudden; but it was welcomed by the majority of Malawians. Malawi’s economy under Mutharika was on the verge of oblivion—the result of poor governance and incoherent macroeconomic policies.

Malawi’s growth plummeted from an annual average of 8.3% between 2007 and 2010 to a mere 4.5% in 2011. The economy—choked by a lethal dose of chronic fuel and foreign exchange shortages, as well as persistent power outages—had nearly seized to function. The lack of social cohesion and an exodus of donors added to the crisis.

Some members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) unsuccessfully tried to prevent the vice president, Joyce Banda, from assuming office as stated in the constitution, in the event of the president being incapacitated. Fortunately enough, a couple of days later, Banda was sworn in as the Republic’s fourth head of state and its first female president.

Despite the fact that Malawians would have welcomed anyone as the next president, I believe it was particularly important that it was a woman; and a woman who, castigated by the Mutharika regime, had felt first-hand the plight of ordinary Malawians.

A huge part of Malawi’s social and economic ills were likely driven by pure male ego. The late president failed to heed any advice—political, economic or otherwise—contrary to his views. Such was his arrogance that Malawi veered off course the Extended Credit Facility (ECF) program provided for by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This disengagement with the IMF led international donors to withdraw their aid commitments to the detriment of Malawi’s economy. Donations make up 40% of Malawi’s development budget.

Donor withdrawal led to the introduction of a disastrous zero deficit budget. The ambitious budget aimed to finance all recurrent expenditure through meager domestic resources. This was in the name of ‘nationalism and pan-Africanism’ and Mutharika’s way of defying the West and proving that Malawi was self-sufficient.

Since Banda assumed office, she has had the unenviable task of rebuilding the economy. A recovery program has been billed at $1 billion: an astronomical figure in these economic times. The president’s government has re-engaged the IMF and negotiated a new three-year ECF program worth $157 million. The IMF facility will ensure a return of prudent macroeconomic policies to promote price stability and growth. The international lender has also written letters of assurance to the country’s donors to release funds in support of Malawi’s recovery plan and to curtail the dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

In addition, donors and investors alike will be further assured of good governance following the repealing of several restrictive laws including the repressive media and anti-gay legislations. Other restrictive laws, enacted under the Mutharika regime, are expected to be repealed in due course. This is likely to rebuild the social cohesion which was destroyed.

Banda has also introduced a sense of accountability among public servants which had all but evaporated. Since Mutharika’s death, several revelations of looting, by him and other public officials, have surfaced. Furthermore, it has emerged that key government institutions, the Ministry of Finance and the Malawi Revenue Authority, flouted public finance regulations in a bid to cover up the deteriorating economy.

In my humble opinion, in the three months that Banda has been in office, she has steered Malawi back on course. However, it’s by no means out of the woods. Along with saving the economy, Banda has demonstrated true leadership qualities, which the country so desperately needed. She has said she’s not a ruler but a leader, which is in stark contrast to her predecessor.

Banda’s banishment from the DPP is her greatest asset. She has seen first-hand how autocratic rule can destroy a nation. With this in mind, she will probably desist from any dictatorial tendencies and maintain her consultative and pragmatic approach to leadership. This is likely to be the case at least until 2014 given the state of the economy and, more importantly, the fact that her party has no seats in parliament.

The true test will be whether she can maintain this standard beyond the 2014 election which, as the incumbent, she is likely to win.

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