The gender card

When I went home to Malawi recently, voter registration had just started in some districts. I read newspaper articles in which President Banda urged people to register to vote, to stake their claim in democracy. The headlines were good, the copy was full of donor-friendly pro-democracy soundbites.

But by and large, the people I spoke to were unhappy about food prices, inflation, a weak currency, loadshedding and blackouts….and corruption. It would be foolish to pretend that President Banda doesn’t face misogyny as one of Africa’s few women leaders, but one of the criticisms I heard levelled against her most frequently is that she was absent.

In the beginning, when she took over following the death of President Bingu wa’Mutharika, foreign visits were an essential part of restoring donor confidence and the aid taps that had been turned off in response to his recalcitrant rule.  But they continued. She is gone for weeks at a time, often jetting in for a short time before taking off again. The day I left a frustrated newspaper editorial lamented the fact that she hadn’t had a press conference since June – and it was an ill tempered one at that. Whispers of incompetence swirl in the vacuum she leaves behind. And apparently, corruption has flourished, summed up in Jimmy Kainja’s hard hitting editorial: The loot and plunder at Capital Hill is a symptom of a rotten Malawi nation | Malawi Nyasa Times – Malawi breaking news in Malawi Her first press conference since her long absence following the UN General Assembly in New York and the cashgate scandal, though, left much to be desired.

To be fair, corruption isn’t new, but like her predecessor, President Banda refuses to declare her assets, hiding behind claims of misogyny. I’m not alone in feeling dismayed:

She has since been warned by the EU about corruption (a rare acknowledgement of her shortcomings by her foreign friends) and sacked her Cabinet, but steadfastly refuses to lead on this and so many other issues. Perhaps this will be a watershed moment, though, as even foreign headlines turn against her.

I want President Banda to succeed, but despite the fact that her opponents in the next election carry a lot of political baggage, she appears to be squandering her opportunity to lead Malawi in a new direction and to win a mandate at the next election.

Do better, Madame President – or we may not get another one. Now there’s some gender politics.

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