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08/22/2011

Malawi’s Vice President speaks out about protests

By Katie Lin

Joyce_2

Seated on the porch of her state residence in Blantyre, Malawi’s first female Vice President, Joyce  Banda, wraps a thick, white shawl around her shoulders and clasps her hands together, indicating that she’s ready to be interviewed.

There is a calmness about Mudi State Residence, with its towering trees and extensive gardens. In such a setting, it is difficult to imagine the starkly different atmosphere that engulfed Malawi’s commercial capital just one month ago.

On July 20, nationwide pro-democracy demonstrations against economic and administrative mismanagement took place, but it wasn’t long before these organized marches disintegrated into chaos and the country erupted into two days of rioting, widespread looting, and violent clashes between police and civilians.

The use of lethal force by police resulted in 19 deaths, dozens of injuries, and more than 500 arrests.

“Where Malawi is at [right now] is as a result of two or three years of frustration and pain            and trying to reason with government – and government refusing to listen” Banda says.

Vice President, Joyce Banda. Photo by Katie Lin

Long plagued by fuel, electricity, water, and foreign-exchange shortages, Malawians presented President Bingu wa Mutharika and his administration with a 20-point petition on the day of the demonstrations. A dialogue between civil society organizers and the government to discuss the petition is scheduled for Sept. 17.

While Banda hopes this dialogue will yield viable solutions, she explains that the root of these problems lies within the political agenda of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP). 

“The President wants his brother to take over from him,” Banda explains of the cause for tensions within the DPP.  “And that’s where [the problems] start from.”

In December 2010, the Vice President was expelled from the DPP for her stance against this unconstitutional succession process – and her strained relationship with Mutharika, her honourary “father” and mentor, only appears to be worsening.

Just two days after the protests, Mutharika threatened to arrest numerous political and civil society leaders – including Banda and leader of the opposition, John Tembo – accusing them of organizing the July 20 demonstrations to topple his administration.

Despite having been openly critical of the President’s constitutional breaches, Banda insists she did not organize or participate in the demonstrations.

“I called upon those that were going to exercise that right to march to march peacefully and not to destroy property. I asked the police to protect lives on the road. I also asked the leadership of this country to discuss matters that affect Malawians and resolve any problems peacefully.”

For Banda, Mutharika’s accusations are unwarranted.

 “When I hear my name, top on the list of those who are wanted, to be persecuted or to be killed or to be smoked out ... I’m surprised,” she explains, “because I don’t know what crime I have committed.”

“But if the crime is that I stood by Malawians when they suffered, when they protested, when they were not happy, then I am ready to be persecuted.”

Most recently, the People’s Party (PP), a political party formed by Banda and her supporters, officially registered and claims to have already gathered more than 1 million members, further strengthening speculation she is a strong presidential candidate for the 2014 national elections.

“Joyce Banda is a shrewd politician, both in terms of organizing and in terms of making an appeal when she speaks,” says political analyst Blessings Chisinga. “So when you look at the potential contenders for the 2014 elections, she is clearly a frontrunner.”

He explains that the emerging PP may offer a fresh and credible alternative for Malawians in the 2014 elections, as disillusionment towards the DPP grows and opposition parties enter a state of flux.

“Malawians are fed up and are very keen to welcome a new brand of politics.”

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