Joyce Banda drops bling for basics

2012-06-06 14:55
Africa's latest woman president, Joyce Banda of Malawi. (AFP)

Africa's latest woman president, Joyce Banda of Malawi. (AFP)

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Blantyre - Malawi's new leader, Africa's latest woman president, does things differently. Joyce Banda is toning down the bling and returning to basics in one of the world's poorest countries.

Banda has announced the sale or lease of a $13.3m presidential jet controversially bought by her predecessor three years ago as well as 60 limousines ferrying cabinet ministers and top government officials.

These steps are meant to heal breaches with international donors who pulled the plug on vital aid to the southern African nation, citing poor economic policies and governance under late president Bingu wa Mutharika.

"There is urgent need in our country to change the way we do things," the 62-year-old Banda - who was vice president from 2009 until she became president on 07 April - told parliament.

Since taking over after Mutharika's death from a heart attack in April, she has launched a national austerity drive which seeks to "cut back on government expenditure through a number of on-going measures".

Africa's second woman president after Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Banda has also signalled a desire to reform her country's ailing farm-based economy.

Part of the cost-cutting schemes is getting rid of the luxury vehicles and plane, symbols of power and status in this poor nation where nearly 40% of the 13 million people scrape by on less than a dollar a day.

"My government has set up a cabinet committee to determine what to do with the presidential jet: whether to sell it or lease it out," Banda told parliament last month.

Strategic decisions

"I can as well use private airlines. I am already used to hitch-hiking," she told a news conference later.

Commentators like Mutharika critic Macdonald Sembereka, an Anglican priest, has welcomed this as a "move in the right direction".

"The president had to make some strategic decisions because the country was at the crossroads," he told AFP.

Mutharika had defended the purchase of the jet, famously saying: "It's our own jet and it's cheap to run it."

But experts estimate maintenance costs for the aircraft reached $338 000 annually.

When Malawi bought the plane, its former colonial power and main bilateral donor Britain started slashing funds.

By 2011, after Malawian authorities violently suppressed popular demonstrations, London cut a fifth of its annual aid.

Other donors, including the International Monetary Fund and the United States, also put on hold funds that subsidised 40% of the state budget.

With a raft of problems including foreign exchange and fuel shortages, an energy crisis and high unemployment, Banda says her country had been "living beyond its means ... where government has been spending more than its revenues".

New loans

Her reforms have seen foreign ties re-established. British Secretary of State for International Development Andrew Mitchell visited the country for talks last week after his department pledged $47m, and the IMF hoped to recommend new loans after a mission earlier in May.

Malawi's central bank last month devalued its national currency the kwacha by a third, giving in to a key International Monetary Fund (IMF) demand which Mutharika had rejected.

Also on the agenda is slashing the "presidential motorcade to sizeable necessity", the new president said.

Villagers used to rush to the road sides to watch past presidents driving by in the contingent of over 30 four-wheel drive Hummers, Toyota Land Cruisers, Land Rovers and Mercedes-Benzes.

Such opulence was in bad taste and hopefully now a thing of the past, said Sembereka.

"No single person or clique should monopolise comfort at the expense of the entire populace. Malawi is bigger than one individual and national comfort must not be monopolised."

- SAPA
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