President Banda uses nuclear option in Malawi

What has happened over the last few days in Malawi is remarkable. Indeed, it is almost certainly unprecedented. Not just in Malawi. Or in Africa. But anywhere. After a rising tide of anger at escalating corruption – or more correctly the increasingly brazen looting and plundering of state resources – President Joyce Banda . Just like that.

Richard Lee's picture

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Strategic communications for WWF

October 11th, 2013

What has happened over the last few days in Malawi is remarkable. Indeed, it is almost certainly unprecedented. Not just in Malawi. Or in Africa. But anywhere. After a rising tide of anger at escalating corruption – or more correctly the increasingly brazen looting and plundering of state resources – President Joyce Banda . Just like that. All gone. Fired. Dismissed from office.

Now cabinets are often discarded when Presidents or Prime Ministers need to deflect blame for some crisis or crises (although more often than not it is individual ministers/scapegoats who get the boot) but for Banda to axe her entire executive over corruption is a stunning statement of intent – and of the shocking scale of corruption in Malawi.

Already Banda is being praised in many quarters for her brave decision. And it certainly is brave. But the question is whether it will be the start of a coordinated, comprehensive anti-corruption crusade or yet another big public (and it’s bigger than most) statement that turns into another toothless anti-corruption campaign.

Hopefully it will be the former since there is still a chance that rampant corruption can be tackled with swift investigations, arrests and prosecutions of the (usually slippery) ‘big fish’ rather than the ‘small fry’ – some of whom have been picked up already. And with a fierce and focussed determination, which has been sadly lacking during previous administrations, to root out the kind of corruption that has sadly become not just endemic – but systemic – in Malawi.

But there are reasons to be sceptical. Firstly, why did Banda allow corruption to flourish to such an extent – to the extent that people were marching on the streets and donors were publicly expressing concern – and will this now change? Was her hand really on the tiller or was the ship of state being steered by others, particularly while she was away on her numerous foreign trips – and will this now change?

And does sacking her entire cabinet really send the right message? Is she saying that they were all culpable due to collective responsibility? Is she saying that some are corrupt but she is not sure which ones so she is axing them all? Is this dramatic act really a show of strength or actually a display of weakness – a lack of sufficient knowledge, control and direction leading up to this point? And why stop at the Cabinet? What about permanent secretaries in the ministries and other key officials?

Like most people, I tend to give Joyce Banda the benefit of the doubt. But the doubts are growing. Sacking her cabinet is a stunning political move – especially with elections due in early 2014. But it is just the first step. She needs to take others immediately - to push for serious investigations into serious players, and to restock her cabinet with capable and incorruptible ministers.

She should also publicly declare her assets, which she has steadfastly refused to do. And while she’s at it, she should make her new minsters do the same. And she should also fast-track a new law that requires public declarations of party funding and campaign spending.

It will be very interesting to see if - or how quickly - she follows this path. As recently as Wednesday, she argued that people were only calling on her to publicly declare her assets because she was a woman – an astonishing use of the 'gender card' in the face of a legitimate demand.

Obviously, publicly declaring her assets is not going to end corruption, but it would be an important symbolic step. After all, she has to be cleaner-than-clean. Especially now that she is alone on the bridge and has sole command of the Malawian ship of state.

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