Joyce Banda is wearing a cheerful fuchsia-pink chitenge (Malawian dress), but looks tired.
We meet her in a Johannesburg hotel, where she has been staying on the return leg of her six-week trip – the longest she has been away from Africa – to the United States (US).
“The last few weeks have been hectic,” says Banda, Malawi’s former president and Africa’s second female head of state.
In the US, she had been rubbing shoulders with Hillary Clinton and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, garnering support for the Joyce Banda Foundation, which she has been running on behalf of women and children in Malawi for the last 16 years. In Johannesburg, she also met with Graça Machel, wife of the late Nelson Mandela, to discuss a maternal and child health program.
Back home, it was an equally hectic few months. In a year Malawi is celebrating 50 years of independence, the international press scrutinized it over a high-level graft scandal and chaotic elections.
Banda left Malawi a month after her country’s closely-contested – and controversial – May elections, which saw her and her People’s Party lose to Peter Mutharika of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Banda was president of the tiny aid-dependent southern African country – among the world’s poorest – for a brief two years, following the death in office of her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika, the brother of the new president.
“I came into office at a very difficult time. The economy had almost collapsed, but in 24 months, I was able to turn [it] around,” says Banda.
Banda says Malawi’s economy grew from 1.8% in 2012 to 6.2% in 2014. She started well, winning accolades from the West for her economic reform plan and austerity measures, including the IMF-backed devaluation of the kwacha.
“What gives me pride is I left Malawi a better place than when I found it. When I came… we didn’t have fuel for a day, companies were scaling down… I had to work very quickly… By the time I was leaving statehouse, we had a harvest of 3.9 million metric tons. Companies were operating at 85%. We had a forex cover of three-and-a-half months [from a week]… We had fuel for 15 days at any given time… The one thing I wasn’t aware of when I came into office is there was so much corruption, and that corruption affects the gains you make.”
Banda claims she started the fight against corruption, revamping Malawi’s financial management system, which she says led to 68 arrests and 30 frozen accounts.
The corruption scandal, or Cashgate, saw senior government officials in Banda’s administration charged with misallocating funds. According to Baker Tilly, the British auditors hired by Banda with financial support from the British government, the state was defrauded of about $32 million, almost 1% of Malawi’s annual GDP, between April and September 2013.
But Banda says the financial system was abused by previous governments, dating back to 2001. She knew bringing it to light was not going to be easy.
“I was warned by colleagues across the continent it’s not easy to fight corruption… because you are fighting very powerful people who are benefitting from that kind of money, and if you are not careful, you will get smeared on, be fought through and through, dragged to the ground…,” says Banda.
“I decided to go back to 2010 and 2011, as I saw the benefit of us finding the truth, [as] that is the only way to move forward. The audit reports together with the K6 billion ($15 million) stolen while I was in office, and the K92 billion ($232 million) [from her predecessor’s time] are before parliament now. The good news is that the current president has also decided to go ahead with the fight against corruption,” says Banda.
The May elections brought more grief.
In the aftermath of the polls, which she alleged were rigged, there was a point when she says she had to take responsibility, call for a recount, step aside from contesting, and concede defeat.
“People have asked me, why did you not contest, why did you concede, when the Electoral Commission had also announced there was rigging? I felt it was important for me to allow peace to prevail. I have always said Malawians come first, this was an opportunity for me to demonstrate that. Malawians must have a leader of their choice, but Malawians should also not shed blood. There is life after statehouse and so much more I can do. So I chose to concede, and have no regrets.”
The buzz in Malawi now is what’s next for Banda? Will she return to politics or philanthropy?
Banda says she will continue championing women’s rights not just in Malawi but across Africa, and since her arrival in Malawi, has been involved with projects through her foundation.
Questions abound about her political future.
“There is a sense of deja vu, with the forex situation worsening by the day, and the kwacha weakening against the dollar and other major trading currencies, many fear that a repeat of fuel shortages that characterized the DPP government may come again. That coupled with the failure to meet some campaign promises may push Joyce Banda’s popularity up,” says Mabvuto Banda, a Malawi-based journalist.
There has also been speculation she might be charged for Cashgate.
“Interestingly, the Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale [in August] lauded Joyce Banda for laying the foundation for the fight against Cashgate but he was quick to say more still needs to be done to effect more arrests. He also warned there will be no sacred cows, a statement that may have fueled speculation JB will not be left out,” says the reporter.
“Joyce Banda has a lot of powerful friends outside Malawi but it’s very difficult for me to see how she could be indicted when clearly many would interpret the indictment as trying to victimize her.”
“When you are innocent, when you are fighting for the people, prosecution does not matter,” Banda had said in Johannesburg, days before her return home.
“If I write a book about my life, it will be volumes and volumes. I want to write one book that [tells] any African woman reading it that [you] can be at the lowest in [your] life and bounce back. In my life, I have been down four times. Every woman who reads my book will know that when you fall, you get up, and run again.”