In the midst of an explosive graft scandal called “Cashgate” that may have drained a third of Malawi’s national budget, embattled President Joyce Banda is talking tough, saying she won't resign, and saying the crisis is an opportunity to further clean house so her nation may one day stand on its own feet.
“Where my mind is right now, this is an opportunity and a wake-up call for us, to me as a leader,” says Ms. Banda, one of two female African heads of state, in an interview in her offices at State House in the capitol. Cashgate has implicated 68 people and caused her to choose a new cabinet. [See story.]
“Sometimes when these things happen, you grow up, you find other ways. We must become creative, we are not going to be dependent forever. Perhaps this is a golden opportunity for us,” Banda says.
Until this fall, Malawi was looking like a model reform African state with Banda, a former women’s rights activist at its head.
She became known as a reformer trying to bust up waste, fraud, and abuse in old-boy networks, and she became a darling of the international donor community when she took a cut in salary and sold off the presidential jet last spring for $15 million.
Yet with a massive graft scandal where officials, including her former finance minister, are accused of a plot to kill Malawi’s budget director as he was ready to blow the whistle on how the government procurement process was a tool for looting – Banda faces a freeze in aid from donors, rumors of family involvement, all topped by her first real election by voters in only six months.
A colorful figure described as determined, Banda came to power after her autocratic predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika died early last year, leading to a peaceful transition that was praised since many thought there could have been a coup.
Yet amid revelations of widespread looting and with investigators discovering cash in homes, offices, and car trunks – many in the donor community have recently lashed out in fury at the government, with one unnamed ambassador describing Malawi as “a country of thieves”.
In her office last week Banda insisted that, in fact, most of her government are horrified by the so-called Cashgate scandal.
She says that unlike presidents before her who turned a blind eye to corruption or were involved in it, she claims to have been working for months behind the scenes to put a stop to it.
"There's no one who can come and say they are more traumatized than we are about this," she said. "We have worked extremely hard to turn our country around – I have not slept for more than six hours for a year and a half.
"And we thought we had come out of the woods but then we find we are going backwards. There's no way we can be looked upon as those that don't care."
Most in the donor community say no evidence has linked Banda to the corruption. But there are whispers about her sons’ involvement and one of those arrested by police over Cashgate has directly implicated the president, saying she asked for handouts to be paid to her in dollars “for ease of keeping.”
Banda pushes back that tackling corruption has come at a personal cost – she has received death threats and could potentially be made to carry the can for it when Malawi goes to elections next year.
“For everyone I have arrested, I have lost a whole village of votes,” she said. “I did not realize this – I thought they would look at the issues but no, they say ‘but it’s our daughter that you have arrested.'
“Some of my colleagues on the continent say... ‘What did you think you were doing? You are a fool, especially doing this six months before your elections’.
“But I am prepared to get bruised because I just feel that this must stop and must stop now. We are finishing 50 years of independence [from Britain] this year. In 2014 we are going into the next 50 years. It is my wish that this rot remains in this millennium. That we go into the next one rejuvenated, clean, and ready to prosper.”
She has dismissed any suggestion of her involvement, and vowed not to step down wherever the evidence leads.
“Why must I resign? The presidents before this saw this and covered it up,” she says. “I must walk away because I was prepared to expose it? No, it has never entered my mind to resign.
“It can go as far as I can but I will not resign. If there’s anybody who thinks I must go, in only five months they can get me out through the ballot box.”
Their success however, will be limited, she believes.
“Smear campaigns will happen to me and it doesn’t matter. What is surprising me is the swelling of support in the rural areas lining up on the streets, cheering and congratulating me,” she said.
“So if I lose a little corner, it doesn’t matter. The whole nation seems to be rallying behind me and people are now leaving their parties to come and join our party.
“I might just win by a landslide. Let’s wait and see.”