The sun of Joyce Banda’s economic policies appears to be setting at noon.
And as twilight falls, a feeling of despair has gripped the spirit of John Likonda—a carpenter from Mbayani Township in Malawi’s commercial city, Blantyre—who, in the past five months, has seen a steady slip of his business from his hands.
“Planks are getting more expensive every day. At the same time, I am losing customers every day because they keep telling me they just don’t have the money,” he complains.
He adds that chances of an improvement of his situation get minimal with each passing day.
“I feel empty, I can’t see where I am going,” says the man, who is married and has three children.
Likonda’s feeling of helplessness; do not end within the corners of his spirit. It is national one.
In fact, it is nothing different from the spirit T.S Elliot saw in Europe after the First World War—one he captures in that 1925 poem The Hollow Men.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar…
It was all about the war—the First World War. It had ravaged the economic spirit of Europe, and its effects were tragic: The rich joined the poverty club, and the poor created a new club: destitution.
The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms….
But it is not war that is turning Malawi into a lost kingdom—a land of spiritual hollowness. It is policy: The devaluation and floatation of the kwacha which President Joyce Banda undertook to save a dying economy which the late president Bingu wa Mutharika left behind.
Of course, at first, Banda might have thought that her policy direction will quickly get the country on track. But along the way, reality caught up with her.
“It’s heavy; but I am able to carry it,” she told UK’s Guardian newspaper in December last year.
And she accepted the challenge: “I’m an African woman. An African woman carries heavy loads, anyway. That’s how we are trained; we are brought up that nothing is unbearable. I use that now, positively. I use that now to have the thick skin that I have, and not fear, and move forward, and push; and push forward.”
But as she pushes, the odds against her continue to pile up.
Apart from drug shortages and demands of pay hikes from all sectors of government, fuel prices continue to rise. This—plus rising inflation and bank rates—is pushing the cost of living and doing business even further for people like Likonda, something spiralling more anger from an already angry public.
For a President with only a year to seek election, that is not an ideal environment to begin a campaign from.
“If things don’t change,” warns Joseph Chunga, president of the Political Science Association of Malawi (PSAM): “the state of the economy will be the most important decider in 2014 for Joyce Banda’s election.”
Even Michael Jana, a South-African-based political scientist, agrees.
“As it is in any country, socio-economic factors remain at the heart of government legitimacy. If people live in persistent poverty and if they believe government would have done better, they will definitely vote out the responsible government,” he argues.
During the transition to democracy in 1992, the explicit loss of legitimacy, and subsequent downfall of Kamuzu Banda, was triggered by strikes at David Whitehead Company and this spread to civil unrest throughout the country.
But with a falling economy she inherited, could President Banda have done any better beyond what she did?
Jana reasons that since assuming office, on the economic management front, Joyce Banda has been more of a mere figurehead than a leader who articulates a vision and make contextual decisions confident that she is taking the country in the right direction.
“Given the poor state in which Bingu left Malawi, in desperation, Joyce Banda has naively allowed Malawi to become another International Monetary Fund (IMF) experimental lab in exchange for resumption of aid. Packaged in the euphoria of being the first woman president in southern Africa, Joyce Banda has seen the likes of IMF director Christine Lagarde, Hillary Clinton and the like, flocking to this new IMF lab to check the results.
“She has failed to use the IMF advice to fit her vision and the Malawian context. She has simply cut and pasted the currency devaluation, floatation—all the free market dictates—thinking that they will solve Malawi’s problems,” he advances.
The tragedy of JB’s policies, adds Jana, is that there is no country that moved out of poverty using purely free market policies.
“I can challenge the Malawi Government to give an example of a country that succeeded by following the free market IMF policies blindly, and I can give them dozens of examples of countries that nosedived because of following IMF policies religiously and naively,” he says.
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men
So can Banda save the kingdom she is losing?
Jana is blunt: “If she does not contain the situation by at least being seen to be solving people’s problems, she is heading for the exit.”
Chunga—who confessed that JB has a very weak incumbency factor come 2014—agrees with Jana that things are not likely to change for Banda if she does not put up a new clear policy direction.
He warns that Banda’s current policy of ‘hoping things will sort themselves out’ has failed to work and cannot work.
“However,” he offers hope; “we cannot rule her out completely until [the main opposition parties] sort out their mess.”
But Banda, of course, cannot just bank on the consistencies of other parties to sail through. Caught in executive extravagance, she needs, at least, to be seen, by people like Likonda, to be solving people’s problems. How she does that is what will define the trial of her leadership mettle.
Otherwise, if she fails, her end will be nothing different from the way T.S Elliot ends his poem, The Hollow Men.
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper…