When rumours started circulating that the People’s Party (PP) was making preparations to celebrate the first year anniversary of President Joyce Banda’s administration, some commentators were indignant, what is there to celebrate about, with all these hardships that Joyce Banda has brought on the people with devaluation of the kwacha?
These are the people who from the start of the PP government have been saying nothing favourable about it. Commentators on public affairs wear different colours. These are those who say you are not worth your salt as a columnist unless you are hyper-critical of those in office.
There are those who prefer to be objective, who see stars even in the darkest night, and know that the sun rises even after such a night. Such people praise when there is something to praise, and criticise when there is something to criticise. I prefer this latter group. And it is in this vein that I am going to think aloud on the performance of the PP government during the 12 months April 2012 to April 2013.
What were the political and economic situations in Malawi up to April 2012? They were less than ideal. The civil society headed by faith leaders had given the then president an ultimatum to act or abdicate within 60 days. The slaughter of 20 demonstrators in July 2011, followed by the murder of a Polytechnic student had cost the president and his government public trust. The prolonged strike of Chancellor College and Polytechnic dons and students had been resolved after a costly confrontation.
In the year 2009, DPP and its presidential candidate had scored landslides in the elections and by the beginning of the year 2012, both the party and the president were on the defensive piloting bills in Parliament to stifle the opposition.
The economy was gripped by galloping inflation partly due to scarcity of goods and partly because of the 10 percent devaluation. Donors and international financial institutions were urging the Malawi Government to devalue the kwacha by 50 percent. President Bingu wa Mutharika would not hear it because, he argued, convincingly the general price level would skyrocket.
When Joyce Banda assumed the office of president in April 2012, she immediately did two things over which the previous government prevaricated and dithered; she devalued the kwacha by nearly 50 percent and was congratulated by the international financial community. She restored diplomatic relations with Britain and visited Mozambique. In short, she brought Malawi’s international relations to normalcy.
Not everybody in Malawi applauded her initiatives. The hardships the country was going through had preceded her, but her critics were writing and talking as if she had originated them. They blamed her for the high cost of fuel, but forgot that fuel was seldom available anywhere in the country at any price.
Four to six months after she assumed office, they blamed her for not turning the economy around, forgetting that she took office at the beginning of the dry season. An agricultural economy cannot be turned around without first going through the rainy season.
The ever-creeping inflation they attributed solely to the devaluation. The truth is that the inflation is multi-faceted. Indeed, part is due to devaluation. But it is also due to scarcity of goods on which money is spent. Maize had been grown with fertilisers imported before devaluation. If now a bag of maize is costing K10 000, it is because the supply is less than the demand.
Since she came to office, there had been overboard salary hikes which had led to cost-push inflation, to pay for the higher wage bill, employers had raised prices and borrowed heavily. Excess liquidity was fuelling inflation.
Shall we say her one-year performance is completely blameless? Rubbish, she has done certain things without first calculating the costs. By replacing certain technocrats by her own “good guys and gals” she has provoked suits amounting to millions, perhaps soon to reach billions of kwachas, she ought to have been more cost-conscious.
In her autobiography, the late Margaret Thatcher said she appointed technocrats regardless of their political affiliation. In various interviews, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore said he gave jobs to men who were capable of bringing about changes. Both Thatcher and Lee magnificently transformed their countries’ economies.
Because in a year’s time, President Banda will be fighting a general and presidential election, she tends to succumb readily to pressure groups that want salary hikes. Those who are driving her to the wall should find time to read how Greece, Ireland, Portugal came to the desperate situations in which they are currently in. Higher pay should be demanded only when the economy has experienced ample growth rates.