She had just returned from the European Development Days (EDD) meeting in Belgium and the World Energy Forum in United Arab Emirates (UAE). That was last month on the 24th.
A day later, when everybody expected her to attend to office matters, President Joyce Banda was back on the road.Â This time, she was distributing relief maize to food-insecure families in the districts of Blantyre and Phalombe.
Â Since then, she has not rested. If she is not hosting fund-raising events at Kamuzu Palace (formerly New State House) or attending an economic gala at the lake in Mangochi or paying respects to fallen World War heroes, then she reverts to the maize distribution exercise.
â€œI started this when I was young; therefore, nobody can stop me from doing that,â€ said the President on Sunday during the distribution exercise in Zomba.
Â Equally baffling is the imprint â€˜JOYCE BANDA MAIZEâ€™ on bags of the maize she is distributing.
Â Of course, press secretary Steve Nhlane has come out strong in defence of the imprint.
Â â€œThe JB-branded relief items are sourced by the President, the Joyce Banda Foundation International and some well-wishers who do not want to be mentioned,â€ he told Malawi News last week.
Â However, the spectacle of an entire Presidentâ€”with her entourage, going around distributing relief maize in bags that bear her imprint raises a number of political questions.
Â What is it in this relief exercise that is arrogantly forcing her not just to leave to it her juniors to carry out but also to make sure that what is being distributed bears her name?Â
History provides a better context. From the late Dr Kamuzu Bandaâ€™s 30 years of dictatorship through Bakili Muluzi and the late Bingu wa Mutharika to Joyce Banda, food securityâ€”defined in terms of maize availabilityâ€”is quite integral in shaping the countryâ€™s politics.
For instance, the worst part of Muluziâ€™s leadership was in 2000 and 2001. This was a period when the country was completely without maize.
Too scorching such memories are, so much that whenever invoked, Muluziâ€”even emeritus professor of history Kings Phiri agreesâ€”does not go down in history as a great leader.
Interestingly, the reason Dr Bandaâ€”dubbed Mchikumbe Number Oneâ€”is revered today is because he, at least, kept the nation â€˜maizeâ€™ secure.Â
So, too, was Mutharika. The successive 2006-2009 bumper harvests did not just win him a landslide victory in the 2009 general elections. It is also defined his legacy. Despite his apparent autocracy, most Malawians treasure great memories of â€˜maizeâ€™ security during his times.
The verdict of history, unarguably, is clear here for all to seeâ€”â€˜maizeâ€™ security is a powerful tool for measuring how Malawians define the success and failure of their leaders. A rational politician, hence, is one who takes matters of â€˜maizeâ€™ security with caution.
Now, with reports that close to two million Malawians, or call them voters, are â€˜maizeâ€™ insecure, is JBâ€™s gesture of taking the lead in relief maize distribution exercise a symbol of something?
â€œShe is just being politically rational,â€ says Blessings Chinsinga, an associate professor of political science at Chancellor College.
In fact, Chinsinga even agrees it is linked to the countryâ€™s political history.
â€œFood security lies at the heart of the countryâ€™s political economy. It is an integral part of the social contract between the State and the people. The legitimacy of any government in Malawi rests on its ability to provide food to the people,â€ he says.
What then is JB trying to achieve?
â€œFood security is a big political issue. Politicians seize every opportunity, and use it to their advantageâ€”wooing voters.Â
â€œJB knows that she does not have a solid political support. To mean, if she handles this period well, she will have come out a caring leader. That is political support. Voters will likely reciprocate come 2014,â€ he says.
Unfortunately, as JB tirelessly goes around distributing relief maize, she ends up with both worlds: Losing and winning some voters. Her constant travels continue to raise public concern.
There are serious questions of extravagance on part of her government and this is becoming a serious worry to some voters as well.
Imagine, in every exercise, the President is seen with a large government entourage. She is always in the company of her deputy, Khumbo Kachali, and other government officials, notably those from Department of Disaster Management.
â€œThis [the size of the entourage] gives an impression that the government has a lot of money. With the economic situation, we need to be prudent with resources.
â€œIn my view, the President is just trying to popularise herself [through the entourages and the branding of the items],â€ says Ernest Thindwa, vice-president of Political Science Association of Malawi (PSAM).
Thindwaâ€™s insights, it can be argued, reflect the foremost economic concerns most Malawians have today. Ask around, the anthem is almost with expression: Every Malawian is worried about the economy and wants JBâ€™s administration to do something.Â
And as 2014 draws nearâ€”in fact, it is just 18 months awayâ€”JB has two pressing issues she must address.
One, to sell herself to the masses so that voters get acquainted with her as 2014 draws close.Â And two, to prove her leadership mettleâ€”a basis of winning votersâ€”by delivering on the dwindling economy.
So, in 18 months, she needs, one, to increase her political visibility to the massesâ€”i.e. seizing the opportunity in relief food distribution and branding bagsâ€”against strong public concerns about extravagance, and two, she needs to deliver on a dying economy she inherited from her predecessor.
Will she manage?Â
â€œThe President, we need to be honest, is caught in catch 22 situation. It is not an easy going for any politician,â€ says Chinsinga.
Perhaps, JB should be the first leader in history to be caught in such a fix. Mutharika, for instance, had four years to clean up the economic mess left by Muluzi. So, too, did Muluzi with predecessorâ€™s mess.
But not with JB. She just does not have the luck of time to, in few months, clean up the mess left by Mutharikaâ€™s tragic economic policies.Â
Already she has taken drastic clean up measures that, in a short term, are rearing ugly scenes on the lives of the people.
And these ugly scenesâ€”consistent fuel and commodity price hikes, dwindling incomesâ€”are tragedies to her 2014 hopes.
â€œI understand that the economy is currently the countryâ€™s biggest concern. What the president should do is to make sure she put in place a strategic framework that should inspire confidence in the economy,â€ continues Chinsinga.
Yes, she can do that, and of course, through the Economic Recovery Plan, government can argue they have a strategic framework in place to inspire confidence in the economy.
But it is not all about that. It is mostly about the daily lives of those who votes. Malawians are living in a tumultuous present punctuated by continued rise in the cost of survival, not living.Â
And as long as tumults remain, JBâ€™s gestures of going all out distributing relief food will, of course, mean something to some voters, but not to a number of voters she needs for 2014.