Banda praised for Malawi’s transition, but bumpy road ahead

Agence France-Presse
Malawi's new President Joyce Banda wins praise for keeping a young democracy on track, but southern Africa's first woman leader must now put the brakes on an economic and diplomatic nosedive

LILONGWE – Malawi’s new President Joyce Banda won praise Sunday, April 8, for keeping a young democracy on track, but southern Africa’s first woman leader must now put the brakes on an economic and diplomatic nosedive.

The 61-year-old was sworn in smoothly on Saturday just hours after officials confirmed the death two days earlier of president Bingu wa Mutharika whose rule had sparked alarms over democratic freedoms and economic mismanagement.

“This has helped to entrench and cement a democratic culture in the country and is a fresh breath of air on our African continent, where smooth transitions are rare,” said the country’s Sunday Times.

“Malawi, with a young history of 18 years of democracy, joins African countries such as neighbors Zambia and Senegal in West Africa who have recently had peaceful, orderly and smooth transitions.”

Banda was hailed for offering an olive branch to Mutharika’s backers, saying there was no room for revenge, after two days of political uncertainty in which the former leader’s inner circle tried to block her assuming the post.

“We can now all look back with pride and optimism at what we have achieved as a nation in the last few days and focus on the huge task of healing and rectifying the undeniable mess that our nation finds itself in,” said the Nation on Sunday.

Human Rights Consultative Committee chairman Undule Mwakasungula, a critic of the late president’s leadership, said Banda’s swearing in as per the country’s constitution reflected the maturity of Malawi’s democracy.

“It’s important that she brings rapid political and economic reforms,” he told AFP.

“The whole economy has gone back because of the donors moving away so I think as a starting point President Joyce Banda should make sure that she brings back the donor confidence.”

Mutharika had expelled Banda, who was his vice president, from his ruling party in a bitter succession battle, as he chose to groom his brother Peter as heir apparent.

Last year Banda formed her own People’s Party and became a vocal critic of Mutharika’s handling of the economy.

At her inauguration, she did not lay out any policy proposals, saying the nation should rather focus on mourning Mutharika.

But her party’s platform includes calls for greater private investment, boosting commercial agriculture, and diversifying exports away from the main cash crop tobacco.

Mutharika died after a heart attack on Thursday, April 5, amid demands for his resignation and threats of unrest, following anti-government protests last year when police shot 19 people dead.

The former World Bank economist was re-elected with a sweeping majority in 2009 but was increasingly accused of wrecking the economy and autocratic crack downs on the media, protests and criticism of the state.

His feuds with donors and lenders such as the International Monetary Fund have hamstrung the aid-dependent economy, with massive shortfalls in the main foreign exchange earner tobacco pushing the country into crisis.

Last year, major backer Britain slashed its funds in a diplomatic showdown, after concerns over Mutharika’s leadership were leaked.

The international community also lauded the peaceful transition, saying Malawi had shown its commitment to democracy and welcomed Banda’s swearing in after uncertainty over the delays in announcing Mutharika’s death.

Prominent political analyst Blessings Chinsinga said Malawi was on the right track but that Banda will be under pressure to behave differently.

“Malawi has shone some light in democracy. We are in the right direction,” he said. – Agence France-Presse

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