The President of the Republic of Malawi, Mrs. Joyce Banda, will be one year in office on April 7, having come to power after the death of President Bingu wa Muntharika to whom she was deputy. In this interview with National Mirror’s TERH AGBEDEH, at the Presidential Villa in Lilongwe, she speaks on challenges of the office, as well as the drive to bring investments to her country. Excerpts:
What are the challenges of leading a country like Malawi?
I was the Foreign Minister before I was elected with the late president in 2009. Immediately we got into office it was very clear that he had decided he was going to have his brother take over from him. This was not part of the plan. What he had told my husband and I, when he asked me to run with him was that he saw in Malawi a future after him where a woman took over. Of course, she would have to go through an election but he would support me. But from day one in the State House, it was very clear that that was not the case. As a result, it compromised everybody else, everybody wanted to please him in that quest to have his brother take over from him. But after a year, it was also clear that he had deviated from the development agenda and he was just concentrating on this succession process and the biggest losers in that equation were Malawians. Because at the end of the day, we found out that poverty has worsened.
This is a country where 85 per cent of the people live in the rural areas; only 15 per cent live in urban areas. Also, statistics show that half of Malawians live under the poverty line. So, to have a situation where the economy and poverty worsened, it meant that we hit rock bottom. And in those three years I was fighting with my boss, I could see things going wrong and once in a while I made statements and that worsened our relationship. Everyone in Malawi knew what I went through. It was the civil societies and the churches that fought for me. But it got so bad that on November 19, 2011 there was an assassination attempt on me, fortunately, they hit the wrong car and the newspapers in Malawi rebuked the government for that.
The situation in the country when I took over was so bad, there was no fuel, there were no friends and there were no drugs in the hospitals. There was nepotism, corruption and wastages. So, Malawians were suffering and suddenly, the president died. For a year and half, I was not allowed to come anywhere near this residence. Cabinet meetings took place next door but I couldn’t come. In fact, I didn’t know much of what was happening. If you recall, on July 20, 2011, there were protests in this country because of the economic situation and 20 people were shot dead. This time last year, there was another big conference organised by the civil societies and they gave the president a 60-day ultimatum to call for a referendum, get a fresh mandate or to resign. He died within the 60 days. In fact, there was a meeting on February 4, 2012 where he approached the civil societies to plead with them to change their mind about the ultimatum. Another meeting was supposed to take place on the sixth but he died on the fifth. So, I took over a country that was in that situation; everything had broken down. For me, the biggest challenge, to answer your question, was to pick up the pieces and to begin the process of rebuilding this nation.
I organised a national dialogue the moment I took over and at that dialogue, we drew up what we called the Malawi Economic Recovery Plan. We did that plan with five sectors namely; agriculture, energy, mining, infrastructure and tourism. I have told Malawians that in each of those five sectors in the next 15 months, there will be three projects that they can see, feel and touch. Whether completed or not, but they will align those projects to judge and say: ‘She came, didn’t have enough time but she also tried to implement a programme that was not popular but within that time was able to do one, two, three projects.’ The last president refused to devalue the Kwacha for three years, so by the time I took over, we had to devalue by about 50 per cent, which was huge and the impact was also huge on ordinary Malawians. That is why side by side, we have had a reform programme, we had to implement a social programme and such programmes that could help mitigate the effects of the reform.
You called for unity among Malawians on your inauguration. What have you put in place to unite the people? When I suddenly became the president, it meant that I was on this side and everybody else was on the other side. So, I had to reach out, to forgive, to bring everybody together and to make sure that I formed a cabinet that was inclusive of all political parties as a starting point. I feel that it worked but it was not easy because the problem that we have in parliament is that the majority are on the opposite side because all those that were not appointed cabinet ministers left the government side and went into the opposition. So, the opposition is in the majority now. My side has 80 members of the parliament. That sometimes poses difficulty when we have to pass a bill; we have to negotiate with other parties in order to have a smooth ride in parliament.
Before you came to power, Malawi was a pariah nation in the sense that Germany, USA, Britain and all the international agencies had withdrawn financial support to the country. What is the situation now?
What has happened so far is that we have a very close relationship with Britain, which is the country that colonised us. They are our big brother but the late president fought with their ambassador and expelled him. Apart from them, the rest withdrew because of our governance record, corruption and because we were off-track. So, the first step I had to take was to go back to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to negotiate and get back on track. After the negotiations, they had to provide what they call ‘letter of comfort.’ It is the letter of comfort that allows you to begin to negotiate with other donors, too. That is the only letter that will bring them back. You must however build confidence.
In 2004, we were at the bottom. When we went back to negotiate, our economy went up. We were growing by six per cent a year, then the former president decided ‘my brother must become president’ and abandoned the development agenda and started fighting with me. Then we went down again, back to the bottom. So, we had to really work very hard to convince the international community this time there is a woman in the State House. Second, it is not going to be business as usual and third, they have to trust us. So, we gained that trust and they began to come back one after another. But I also quickly renewed our relationship with Britain and as I speak, we have our ambassadors exchanged. They are the ones who have given us most of the money that we have received as budgetary support. As of last week, the money that has come into the country is about a billion Kwachas.
We have done well but I have asked the former and current governors, everybody, why is it that we still struggle? And they told me the hole was too huge. There was a lot of looting, so it will take a long time. I have said to Malawians, ‘yes, donors can come in and help us but we should be angry with ourselves and not depend on donors for 40 per cent of our budget.’ Therefore, as they assist us, we must also look for ways of moving away from aid to trade. So, we are looking at countries like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea, countries that are big, that are not going to come and give us handouts. We must look upon them as trading partners. We are so rich and we didn’t know that we have so many minerals we can mine. We have coal, gold, bauxite, oil, gas; we didn’t know this before. So, what we must look for in other countries are partners who will come and invest. That is the only way I believe we can move forward and prosper. But right now, where we are is hard. It is hard because we are now just beginning to recover. In getting back on track, we had to devalue our Kwacha and it is what people are not used to. The previous president said: ‘I will not devalue but I will also fix the Kwacha.’ So, it had an official rate, which was 150 Kwacha to the dollar and then on the black market, it was 350. It is where we are now. When we devalued, the hidden dollars came back but we need to find a way forward and that is what is hard because I have to convince even people in my own party to say, ‘we need to wait just a little bit longer, we are closer to the end than where we have come.’
Nigeria is one of the countries you visited immediately you became president. What is your relationship with Nigeria and other African heads of state in terms of getting their support to drive your development agenda?
What we are focusing on most in Nigeria is your expertise; your Minister of Agriculture is our jewel. That is what we are aiming at. Why? When we went to the Rockefeller Foundation and other places to talk about agriculture, they told us, ‘stick to the Minister of Agriculture of Nigeria.’ So, we are trying to launch in this country, a cassava programme to increase production, processing and export. I have had meetings with President Goodluck Jonathan and I asked him: ‘Will it be possible for us to engage his Minister of Agriculture?’ He graciously accepted. So, we have started negotiations. Then he came here and launched the cassava project. We have distributed a lot of cassava sticks and we are looking at how we can process the cassava. We are looking at how we can get the market. But I believe that those countries that have done well on this continent can help us by transferring technology and knowledge. I even brought here baskets of Nigerian bread made with 20 per cent cassava flour. Malawians couldn’t believe because we just didn’t know, because cassava grows here very easily. Indeed, we are hoping that that is where we can benefit. But also, I had discussions with President Jonathan in Addis Ababa that we intend to grow two crops a year and he must help us by buying our rice because we know that Nigeria is working towards being self-sufficient in the production of rice but right now also imports. I asked: ‘Is it possible for Nigeria to import rice from here?’ He laughed and said: ‘One order will be your entire harvest.’
I also spoke to the President of Equatorial Guinea. I said: ‘I hear you buy everything?’ and he said: “Yes, including tomatoes and onions.’ You can just imagine what excitement we have here. You saw them dancing last night. It is the hope that is driving the people. At a very difficult time like this, they are beating drums all the time. It is the African way, we don’t despair. That hope was kindled when they said even tomatoes, and when I told Malawians, it was only a few days later that we woke up and said, no, but quantity, because he said: “I can send you a plane every week” and we looked at each other and asked: ‘A plane a week, can we fill a plane a week? No, so let’s go back to the drawing board to see how we can increase production.’ We have experts from Israel trying to look at the production side to see that we produce the quantities required.
You have travelled around the world in search of investors since you became president. Would you say that what is on ground, in terms of foreign investments, meets your expectations?
In those five sectors that I talked about, agriculture is the easiest, we are getting a lot of interest in people wanting to come and invest in agriculture. They are also interested in energy and mining. Mining yes, but it is long term, it is just that we are impatient but that is where it is going to happen; that is where the jobs will be; that is where our wealth is. But for the time being, it is agriculture and so we see a lot of interest. Our planes are always full in Malawi. So, there must be something people are seeing but what we need to do is to create an enabling environment in order for them to come and run their businesses in a friendly atmosphere. We have set up a one-stop destination where people can come, register their businesses, get land and all they require under one roof. In the meantime, I have set up in my office, a project implementation unit. The Nelson Mandela Initiative has also provided staff to strengthen the capacity of that office. George Soros has provided staff, so that they can monitor progress and make sure that when somebody comes and wants to start a business, he or she doesn’t have to wait and get frustrated. The index that I found on the World Bank Destination for doing Business, we are number 157 and it is my task to make sure that we change that and get within the first 100 because that has an effect on why somebody will decide that he or she wants to do business in Malawi or not.
How soon do you hope your diplomatic relations with Nigeria will move from the level of special envoy to say a high commissioner and ambassador and what do you hope that will do for you?
What we looked at was that the ambassador that was representing us in the whole of West and Central Africa was one person and that doesn’t work at all. All these things we are talking about, even about you people coming here, it is because Michael Anyiam-Osigwe is now our honorary consul and he can tell us about the opportunities that exist in Nigeria. Even for me to visit Nigeria, it is because when you begin to talk to people they say: ‘Oh, we are growing cassava, rice; there is a market for this and for that.’ Having a representative, a permanent ambassador in Nigeria will be the way to go but even if that happens, we still need an honorary consul. That is what happens in other countries but the timing is difficult for me to say because we have to look at the resources. It will not make sense if I tell Malawians that we are beginning to open embassies now. They will say: ‘But we have no drugs in the hospitals’. So for me, it is first thing first. Right now we are satisfied at how things are going. Your ambassador here is doing such commendable work.
You did something unusual when you sold your presidential jet and the exotic Mercedes Benz cars in the presidential fleet. What was the motivation for that and in the light of your many travels abroad, looking back would you say that selling off the plane was a good decision?
It was not a good decision to sell the president trial jet, but one I had to take, I didn’t have a choice. Actually, a plane for the presidential is not a luxury, it is a must. But all Malawians made a decision that we are going to make sacrifices. I spoke to all Malawians: ‘Are you ready for us to take the tough route into the future in order to prosper? We need to devalue, to do this, are you ready?’ They said yes. The first person to demonstrate it was me. Therefore, I had to make that sacrifice. I am told, a plane, whether it is flying or parked, you are losing money. Therefore, this is a great loss of money, so let it go.
Number two, I had to cut my salary by 30 per cent. I just have to demonstrate to Malawians that I can make that sacrifice. I just gave up my salary; in fact, I get a token now, for your information, $2,000. So, I am not here because I want to make money, I get $2,000 as monthly salary and I don’t even see it because at the end of the day, I pay school fees for 2,200 girls. So, I just send it to the schools and God looks after me. My vice president equally did the same. Suddenly, I found that it is getting down. Everybody realises we have a responsibility, a duty, everybody is suffering. So, selling the presidential jet was a must. I know that another president will come and build this economy, we shall prosper. And I shall get out because I have to leave, I can’t be here forever. Another person will come and buy himself a plane. I have no problem with that but at that point it will make sense. We will have a plane, we can run it, we will have the resources and everybody will be living a better life.
Yesterday you made a statement during the AMAA nominations party where you talked about investors coming in and then you cautioned your ministers not to frustrate them. Are the people prepared for this type of journey that you are embarking on?
We are prepared but what I do is when I appoint any minister, I tell him or her that I am running and if you are not ready please don’t come. So, what we found at was that we have a very strong team that is why they were laughing. I don’t have any problem with them, they run with me. But they and I are frustrated; we are frustrated together, so when I say don’t frustrate anybody, I am talking about their officials because the system has to be cleaned up. A lot of people are ready to work with us, for us and for the people of Malawi but you can also find some elements that are still where they were, who don’t understand and wonder, why must we work so hard? Every week, cabinet officials bring their staff here. The ministries must give me their reports and I tell them to allow everybody to speak. So, even if they are the simplest persons in the ministries, who have never dreamt of meeting with a president before, they have an opportunity now once a week. Most of them are young, so they are more creative than some of us. And because I have given them the opportunity to come here and speak to me, it has also changed their way of thinking because I tell them that it is not about anyone, but about Malawi.