By Staff Reporter
Joyce Banda in 2012. Photograph: Sudarsan Raghavan/Washington Post/Getty Images
It isn’t a title necessarily to be proud of: Africa’s first female ex-president. But for Joyce Banda, voted out of office a year ago, the short epigram speaks volumes about her short, turbulent time in power in Malawi, and the lessons it holds for female leaders everywhere.
“You just have to go and look at what’s happening to women presidents now and I don’t know whether that is going to attract women to enter politics because in Malawi my being in politics had a negative effect,” she told the Guardian in a rare interview.
“Women decided ‘no, I would rather not join politics. If you end up being a leader and you’re treated like that, then I cannot do it.’”
None of this was unique to Malawi or Africa, she continued. “I want to ask you to look across the world. Start with Australia and look at what Julia Gillard went through: she was called a witch, a bitch, a chicken. Go to Thailand and see what the prime minister has gone through: now she’s in court. Go to the Philippines and see what has happened to former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. She was arrested and charged with corruption; everyone who was arrested with her has been released on bail except her, and she’s sick. The matter has gone to the UN.
“From there move on into Zimbabwe, see what’s happening to Joice Mujuru [the former vice-president expelled from the ruling Zanu-PF party]. Go to Liberia and see what Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is going through – even Ebola is her fault. And go to Argentina and Brazil, end up in the US. So I don’t want to talk about myself but it is something a journalist should take a close at look at and form your own opinion. Misogyny not only for Joyce Banda but for women.”
Banda’s ascent came abruptly in 2012 when the increasingly authoritarian rule of Bingu wa Mutharika was ended by a fatal heart attack. As vice-president she was constitutionally entitled to succeed him, but when Mutharika’s allies tried to block her she had to rely on the head of the army to confirm her as the first female president in southern Africa. She is one of three the continent has seen: the others – Liberia’s Sirleaf and Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic – are still in office.
She refuses to blame sexism for her losing power two years later and notes that her biggest critics tended to be women. “It is very strange in Malawi,” she reflected. “I was pleasantly surprised, the reception that I got. I don’t remember a single day during the time I was minister of gender, foreign minister, vice-president and president when I saw anything on the part of the men that indicated they were undermining me.
“In fact, it was the other way round: I received a lot of support from men in my country, maybe sometimes more than my fellow women. If there were any statements on radio scandalising me or accusing me, it was my fellow women, so I think I would be telling a lie if I said that I faced that in Malawi.”
Banda was speaking after a meeting of the Champions for an Aids-free Generation, a group of former African presidents and other influential figures. They signed a declaration that included a focus on adolescent girls and women, “the face of HIV in Africa”. It is one of the international causes that Banda, going back to her activist roots, has been pursuing since last year’s acrimonious election defeat to Bingu’s brother Peter Mutharika.
Joyce Banda: ‘I want Malawians to say our country became a better place’
She has not set foot in Malawi since September. No one is quite certain what will happen when she finally does return home. Her enemies have attempted to implicate her in a multimillion-pound “Cashgate” corruption scandal and, more recently, in allegedly ordering the assassination of Peter Mutharika when he was suspected of plotting a coup to prevent her from taking power.
“I am being accused of murder, that I wanted to murder this president the time he was refusing to give up power to allow me take office,” she said. “It came from his mouth: that the former president sent doctors to come and inject him the day he was kept in the police [station]. That is the one [accusation] that is more current and serious now but I don’t care even about that because it’s not possible.”
Banda insists that she has no regrets over her handling of the Cashgate affair in which civil servants, businessmen and politicians were put on trial accused of exploiting a loophole in the government’s payment system to divert millions into their own pockets. She says she asked the British government to fund a forensic audit, made publicly available online, that revealed 13bn kwacha (£19m) was stolen in three months during her administration. She also launched an investigation into Bingu’s last three years as president that uncovered the theft of a staggering K92bn (£135m).
“The tragedy is the former president was alerted, just like I was, and didn’t take action,” she said. “That is the difference. Therefore, I shall always be proud of what I’ve done, regardless of what you journalists or anybody can say.”
The scandal prompted Britain and other donors to freeze direct aid, which made up 40% of the national budget. Banda added: “The donors have been very clear: ‘We will come back but conduct a forensic audit into the K92bn, we want to know who stole this money.’ At the end of the day it is not the donors that have to be blamed. It is us as Malawians: we are not listening to what the donors want us to do. It is my opinion that that should happen, that the forensic audit should be conducted into the K92bn so we know where that money went.”
The former president says she was warned that a crusade against corruption would ruffle feathers and make enemies, but she was determined to stay the course. “You’re fighting strong people and they’ll fight you back, but I was fortunate in the sense that I decided that State House is not the last place I can be. There’s life beyond State House and therefore I will do it regardless because Malawians are the ones that must come first, and that’s what I did.
“So they will criticise but all I want you to know as journalists is that you must help this continent: when you find one leader that sticks their neck out to fight corruption, they must be encouraged. At the end of the day it’s not about Joyce Banda, at the end of the day it’s about that ordinary person in the village who must get drugs but she won’t get drugs because money’s been looted.”
“I will forever be proud that I did a good job,” she adds, pointing to sharp reductions in maternal deaths as an example. Yet despite all her claimed successes in agriculture, infrastructure, mining, energy and tourism, Banda suffered a clear-cut defeat at the polls. Critics suggested she was politically naive, picking fights with the likes of Madonna, and in a mutual love affair with the west.
Banda refuses to comment on whether she thought the vote was rigged, but at the time she chose not to dispute the result to avoid a destabilising standoff. “I decided that I was going to leave State House, and I was going also to step up and step aside so that I give President Peter Mutharika an opportunity to run the country without my interference.
“In any case, you can only have one leader at a time.”