Op-Ed | The Rise and Fall of Malawi’s ‘Madam President’

Image source: JoyceBandaFoundation.Com
Image source: JoyceBandaFoundation.Com

What can we take away from the Joyce Banda story?

“You ask how I feel to be the first female president in southern Africa? It’s heavy for me. Heavy in the sense that I feel that I’m carrying this heavy load on behalf of all women. If I fail, I will have failed all the women of the region. But for me to succeed, they all must rally around.” These were the words of Joyce Banda on her dramatic rise to presidency. In the documentary titled ‘Madam President’ produced for The Guardian, she comments further on this “heavy” load; “It’s heavy, but I am able to carry it. Why? Because 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.” She appeared undaunted by the prospects of leading her country and focussed on the task ahead with the hopes that at the end of her tenure in office, Malawians would say that Malawi is a better place.

The whole world applauded. With two of the few female heads of state in the world being from the continent, it seemed Africa was taking huge strides in the journey towards gender equality. The international media headlines sensationally focussed on her gender and what this meant for women: Malawi’s Joyce Banda puts women’s rights at centre of new presidency, Woman President shows Malawi the way. They packaged and sold her to us. We bought it. No one seemed to care about her credentials – not to say that she wasn’t qualified for the job – or the hostility that surrounded her assuming the presidency after the sudden death of  President Bingu wa Mutharika. It was enough that she is a woman. Women’s rights groups were thankful for another face to add to posters. Indeed we all took her at face value and we failed to dig a little deeper. As the former vice president, one would assume she was the perfect understudy for the top position so she must know what to do. She must have a vision. She is a woman. She has to do better. She is a woman. We didn’t scrutinise her. She is a woman.

On hearing her comments about carrying a heavy load on behalf of all women, I felt sorry for her. At the time we all wished her well and showed support after she assumed office. And now fast forward to May 2014, many of us are choosing to withdraw that support, ashamed to be saying that she doesn’t represent us as African women. We have been watching her political world shatter. The tune of the international media has changed. The cracks are being exposed as she lost the elections to the brother of her late predecessor, one of the ministers she had arrested and charged with treason for blocking her ascent, the man who the political elite had wanted instead of her. We now know that though she was the darling of the international community, she was unpopular with the majority of people within Malawi and needed the help of the military to secure her presidency. Some may say this was because Malawians were not ready to embrace change and answer to a female president. This may well be the case. But we now also know about cashgate, we have heard of allegations about how she tried to abuse incumbency to win the elections by handing out maize, motorcycles, cows and houses to hundreds of the nation’s poor, without accounting for the source of the funds. She is also reported to have donated 50m Kwacha (£75,525) to two popular but financially struggling football clubs, presumably all in a desperate attempt to win votes. We now know that she was referred to as the “absent president” as she was frequently invited all over the world to make speeches and presentations and Malawians believed their country was underserved as a result.

I can see why women chose to withdraw their support. Solidarity in the struggle for equal rights does not mean standing together and supporting each other blindly even when someone is blatantly wrong. When it gets to the point where we forge gender issues out of everything and we refuse to hold each other accountable, victimizing ourselves while looking for a member of the opposite sex to carry the blame, we are dealing with an even bigger problem that will distract us from the all important battle for equal rights. If we truly want the same rights then we must remember that with them come the same responsibilities. We are just as culpable; female or male, elite or illiterate.

Joyce Banda went into office seemingly determined to bring Malawi out of austerity. She sold off a $15 million presidential jet and cut her own salary down by 30 percent but her time in office was marred by financial scandals and it would appear as though the straw that broke the camel’s back is cashgate as mentioned earlier. Joyce Banda at the beginning of her tenure arrested and charged ministers with treason for trying to block her ascent only for her own chosen ones to embezzle $100m of state funds under her watch. This led some donors to freeze aid while dozens of suspects were put on trial. Banda fired her cabinet in October but many believe she did not do enough to deal with the issue. They held her accountable through the ballot box.

It is true that men often see leadership as a means to caress their egos and exercise their machismo and gung-ho characteristics. Many argue that women have emotional intelligence unlike men and are more likely to be trust-worthy and open while putting an emphasis on collaboration, empowerment, interdependence, compassion and interpersonal relationships. Also, you are less likely to hear about women leaders being involved in some of the sex scandals that have made news headlines. The questions however remain. Are these just sweeping stereotypical generalisations?  Does gender really matter? Can we say categorically that one gender understands the true meaning and nature of leadership better than the other? Surely no one gender should hold a monopoly on leadership. Gender equality for me should be equal opportunities for change, not equal opportunities for the political agenda to remain the same but under a different gender. Which one can argue is what happened in Joyce Banda’s case as highlighted above.

There are lessons to be learnt here, the most important one being that leadership is not a gender struggle. I sincerely wish that the opportunity gaps between men and women weren’t still so wide and that we had a lot more women in public office than we do now. However, provided that there is a system that favours both genders as far as education is concerned, would the ideal not be a world wherein gender is not the issue and it was more about whoever is qualified for the job? The right credentials and the right experience. Maybe we need more women in office for that system to be put in place. But our focus should not be on quotas. It should be on getting the right women no matter how few they are.

John C Maxwell, an American evangelical author, defined a leader as; “one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” To a great extent I agree. However there is more. Leadership can be messy and is not always straightforward.  The idea that there is a shortlist of specific characteristics set in stone, for a good leader is preposterous.  This is because leadership encompasses various different scenarios from organisation to organisation, business to business and country to country. And there are certain characteristics that work better in some situations than they do in others. When you are a leader, there are times that you have to make unpopular decisions. Like I once read; “To err is human, to forgive is not company policy.” And in Africa’s quest to eradicate corruption, it shouldn’t be the continent’s policy either.

To pretend that leadership is all honky dory and positive and to wish the dreadful bits away is taking a huge step towards failure. We hope for change. We hope for a day that women with the same talents, qualifications and experiences as men would be given the same opportunities to prove themselves for the same salaries. But what is also pertinent is that women and men need to stop the power struggle and learn to be more interdependent. Both genders have the tools to be great leaders. All it takes is for both sides to discuss the elephant in the room and to understand what the true meaning of leadership is. And part of that involves accepting that leadership is not necessarily for everyone. It has become a common rhetoric that we must all strive to be leaders. What is the point of a shepherd with no flock? It is important that we first of all embark on achieving excellence in all that we do and that does not always equate to leadership. As Anthony F Smith (Co-Founder and a Managing Director of Leadership Research Institute and author of The Taboos said; “Many individuals in history had a significant impact in life without being a leader. We would be much better off if everyone believed that they can and should be a productive, wonderful, compassionate, loving human being.”

We don’t all have to be Presidents to aid the development of our countries. We need a civil society that is just as proactive and effective as the government it looks up to. Ranked by Forbes as the 40th powerful woman in the world and Africa’s most powerful woman in 2014, before Joyce Banda took office, she was an educator and a women’s rights activist at grassroot level. She founded the Joyce Banda Foundation with the aim of supporting and enhancing the lives of women, promoting free education, targeting youth through sports, spreading HIV/AIDS awareness and aiding village transformation through agricultural programs like the One Goat & One Cow Per Family Program which was widely successful. It can be argued that though she was less known internationally, she made a lot more local impact outside of the political arena. She was loved by women who came out in their droves to dance with her when she became the first female president of Malawi. She was hailed as the champion of female empowerment. I wish that remains at the forefront of her legacy.

Have Your Say…

We asked GoWomen what advice they would give to future African Presidents. Thanks to all those who shared their views, we can now share these top five tips:

  1.   Leadership should be considered a service to humanity. Be honest and know your limitations. To progress, get rid of the sycophants and surround yourself with skilled citizens who are prepared to make sacrifices for the greater good of the country under your leadership.
  2.  Don’t believe the hype. Do not make the western media praise singers the soundtrack to your rise in office because they will be the first to publish the obituary for your character assassination when your reign comes crashing down. Their agenda is not your agenda.
  3.   We are becoming better enlightened. We know our rights. If we do not vote for you, please bow out gracefully unless of course you want your exit played out to the world like Gbagbo’s. And if we do vote for you, we will demand transparency and accountability. That much you owe us.
  4. Please focus on education. Educating your people on their rights and duties as well as giving them life skills. An educated population will never allow you to fool around with their country and perhaps that is why education is not on the current agenda for many.
  5.  Prioritize women’s education and empowerment. Better placed women will go a long way towards aiding a nation’s development.

WATCH: Joyce Banda | Life After Presidency 

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