Exorcising the past

Joyce Banda has been formally sworn in as the President of Malawi. What can she bring to an unsteady table?

Her ascent to the top job follows the death of Bingu wa Mutharika on 5 April after the president suffered a heart attack. As the vice-president – and in line with normal democratic procedure – Banda stepped up and assumed the presidential office.

However, there have been a few calls for the new woman to step down from politics, abandon the People’s Party she founded in 2011 and call fresh elections. Wa Mutharika’s chosen successor (his brother Peter) has been sidelined. The (just replaced) Minister of Information, Patricia Kiliati, has claimed that the 61-year-old Banda is ‘incapable of running the country’. And there are many MPs who were close to wa Mutharika and may not stand back so willingly as Banda moves behind the leader’s desk.

Banda has dealt with many of the old guard already by clearing them out and forming her own, refreshed cabinet. This is always a tricky game to play and she has kept in a few wa Mutharika ministers. (But you could argue that they got to stay on only because they had questioned the late president’s economic mismanagement.)

But Malawi has bigger fish to fry than the search for a perfect ministerial mix. There has been a worrying economic mirroring of neighbouring Zimbabwe, with the healthy agricultural policies and surpluses of a few years ago turning into hyperinflation and fuel and food shortages. Homosexuality is illegal and sexual discrimination laws, which are coming into force on the other side of the continent in Angola, are far from appearing in Malawi. The country receives an average of £93m annually in aid from London, which goes some way towards trying to combat the high rates of maternal mortality and the fact that 12% of the working-age population is HIV-positive.

To his credit, Bingu wa Mutharika did seem spend much of his first term in office, from 2004-2008, trying to sort out the national nourishment situation and using government subsidies wisely to feed more of the poorer Malawians. But sadly, in recent years, the good governance of the mid-2000s had been eroded by wa Mutharika himself. Some of his comments and methods of running the nation edged on dictatorial, others have been plain odd. He threw out the British High Commissioner for criticising him and tried unsuccessfully to get parliament to amend the constitution to allow him to emulate his “brother” next-door, Robert Mugabe, and continue as president indefinitely. He moved out of the presidential palace in 2005 because he felt it was haunted by invisible animals and summoned exorcists to cleanse the building.

With Joyce Banda taking over in the hot-seat in Lilongwe, the lake-side nation has become the first country in the region to have a female president. This is welcome progress and there has been warm encouragement from the global community for her to seize this opportunity to drive Malawi forward. She has been an ardent defender of women’s rights and is a powerful voice for her country. The death of the president is unfortunate but does provide a chance for the small nation to focus efforts once more on development and important domestic issues such as advancements in education, health and governance. Exorcisms can wait for now.

The trouble with two presidents

It is Christmas time but the feeling of goodwill to all men seems not to have extended itself to elections season in Africa.

Laurent Gbagbo, the outgoing president of Ivory Coast was defeated in the vote on 28 November but has chosen to swear himself back into office, causing friction in the capital, Abidjan. The main problem appears to be that his opponent, Alassane Ouattara, has also taken the presidential oath. So Ivory Coast currently has two presidents, from opposing camps.

The African Union has sent ex-South African premier Thabo Mbeki to sort the situation out. However, his laissez-faire attitude towards Zimbabwe’s electoral hurdles is not easily forgotten. There are worries that he is something of a walkover when confronted with persistent and vociferous fellow African leaders.

Gbagbo has the army behind him and there are fears that Mbeki may pander to Gbagbo’s sympathies over Ouattara. The latter has strong backing from the north of the country and Mr Mbeki will be mindful of the geographical civil war in Ivory Coast in 2002-3, when the nation was divided into North and South. Nigeria is a clear and present example of the problems that can arise when you have a country split obviously into northerners and southerners. Sudan is rupturing over the issue. Further afield, the Korean Peninsula provides another example of the problem.

It is also election time at the moment in Egypt but there are problems afoot. Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition party, withdrew from the vote over allegations of electoral corruption. It was hardly surprising then, that the governing National Democratic Party returned over 97% of the seats. Egypt is an international focus point for the continent, but eyebrows cannot keep being raised over its ‘democratic’ structure. Next year’s presidential elections will be key.

Back in West Africa, Niger is gearing up for local elections to be held on 31 December and the more significant contest to be the country’s leader on 3 January. President Mamadou Tandja is under pressure after the military grabbed power in a coup earlier this year. The head of the national electoral commission, Abdourhamane Ghousmane, has urged all politicians and parties to work together to try to achieve a nationally-recognised result in the New Year.

All hopes rest on his words being honoured. Otherwise Mr Mbeki could be off on another power-mediating placement sooner than he thought.