Who would want to be a President? Lessons from Malawi

Presidents Kikwete of Tanzania and Banda of Malawi

Presidents Kikwete of Tanzania and Banda of Malawi

President Joyce Banda of Malawi is in a pickle. A corruption scandal has emerged on her watch, and she’s under pressure from all sides, quite possibly through no fault of her own. In fact, it may even be the case that she finds herself in this mess precisely because she has done something not far from the right thing.

So what happened?

A few weeks ago, an environment ministry official was found with £190,000 in the boot of his car, then the Budget Director – said to be on the verge of blowing the whistle – was shot three times outside his home. According to the Telegraph (not my usual source, but they were given an interview by Banda), 68 people have been arrested in the ensuing investigation, including the Ministers of Finance and Justice. The Minister of Justice has been charged with attempted murder of the Budget Director. The President has cleared out her cabinet, and said that about 30% of the country’s budget could have been stolen over the past decade. Thirty percent. 

Several donors, including DFID, have pulled their aid. Though there’s no direct evidence of Banda’s complicity, as the donors seem to agree, but they can’t risk being seen either to condone the theft or to be negligent in managing their aid.

Meanwhile, Banda is under attack from another direction.

“I have made an announcement that if you are my daughter, my son, my party official, my cabinet minister, and you find yourself involved in this, you are going to go to jail. I am not going to stand in the way,” she said.

“It is a high cost for me just doing that, as a politician, six months before elections because for everyone I have arrested, I have lost a whole village of votes. I did not realise this – I thought they would look at the issues but no, they say ‘but it’s our daughter that you have arrested’.”

Which brings me to my question: who would want to be a President? A corruption scandal dating from years before you came to power erupts on your watch, leaving you with a choice. You could keep as much of it under wraps as possible, maybe demand some funds are returned and offer a couple of high profile sackings as a sacrifice to keep the donors happy. Or you could go all out to find out what happened and hold those who stole the money to account.

In practice, President Banda has looked for a middle ground, but she has unquestionably done more than the minimum. A lot more.

And as a result, donors are pulling out and she finds herself dangerously isolated politically six months before a general election – losing both grassroots support and senior party colleagues.

So perhaps my question should be a different one: Why, as a President, would you even think of trying to do the right thing?

But let me end with one final quote, an excerpt from the Telegraph, which may begin to explain why this case is relevant to a blog that focusses mainly on Tanzania:

“Mrs Banda said that her neighbours in the region had told her she was a ‘fool’ to raise her hand about the leakage.”

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Further reading:

http://allafrica.com/stories/200907100964.html (30%);
http://www.oecd.org/countries/tanzania/48912823.pdf (donors);
http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2008/apr/22/defence.bae (cash)