So much has happened in the past week – we went to the lake with friends, relaxed on a beautiful tropical island in the middle of nowhere, and came back to a new President!
We heard the news that President Bingu had had a heart attack last Thursday – the news trickled in slowly – first through rumors and text messages from friends, then through overheard conversations in the grocery store, and finally through stories on the BBC. For about 24 hours, nobody really knew who exactly was in charge.
The news from Lilongwe was confusing: he’d had a heart attack, but was being treated, he’d had a heart attack and was flown to South Africa for treatment, he’d had a heart attack and didn’t pull through – everyone had a different story. The radios were silent on the topic and we were unable to access our usual internet news sources.
As expats, used to stories of political turmoil, such as recently in Kenya, we prepared for the worst. One could easily foresee a violent struggle between the Vice President, Joyce Banda (who had recently formed a new presidential party after being expelled from the ruling DPP) and President Bingu’s brother, Peter (who was being groomed to takeover in 2014 ). Both had significant support – the DPP was powerful and has shown in the past year that it is not above using violence and intimidation. Joyce Banda’s new party, the People’s Party, is small but she has the weight of the Constitution behind her.
We packed our bags, mapped our evacuation route (as we were headed to the lake, we decided we’d hop in a dugout canoe and paddle to Mozambique if necessary), remained in contact with our NGO Country Directors, and, with the rest of the country, we waited.
The next day, Friday, it was confirmed that President Bingu had passed away. Almost immediately, the President of the Malawi Law Society publically announced that the only legal successor, according to the Constitution, was the Vice President, Joyce Banda, and that she had their complete support. Soon after, the Military also came out in support of Banda.
Malawians across the country waited peacefully for Banda to be sworn in, showing remarkable solidarity, patience, respect, and wisdom.
Friday evening, the former Government spokeswoman, Patricia Kaliati, denied the President’s death and announced that Joyce Banda could not be President because she had been expelled from the ruling political party. She said in her statement, “If the Veep is concerned with the President’s condition, why doesn’t she go to the hospital? She should not speak on the Constitution because she is not supposed to.” Kaliati, always appearing in inches-thick layers of makeup, is one of my favorite characters in Government – she can always be counted on to say something outlandish, incendiary, or ridiculous. In any case, Kaliati’s laughable attempt at a coup failed almost immediately, as support for her and the DPP evaporated.
Beyond that, the biggest worry was that many Malawians would celebrate President Bingu’s death too enthusiastically. The new President, in her first address, urged respect, calm, and a ten-day period of mourning. She added, “It is with a great sense of humility and honour that I accept the huge responsibility that the people of Malawi have entrusted me with.” While some do genuinely mourn his passing, it is a testament to how unhappy the general public was with the administration that a culture who reveres the elderly and venerates those in power should be asked not to celebrate the President’s passing too boisterously.
This below post, highlighting all of the shortages Malawi has seen over the past year, flew around facebook soon after Bingu’s death was announced:
‘Bingu woke up on the morning of 5th April and proceeded to brush his teeth but found no water. He decided to go and watch the BBC, but there was no electricity. Then he told his cook to make him a cup of tea but he was told there was no sugar. Angrily, he went into his car to go to town but there was no fuel. The pure frustration gave him a heart attack, and he was rushed to hospital where there was no medicine to resuscitate him.’
And while it’s true, no one wishes death on another person, there is suddenly a great feeling of hope – one that is almost palpable. Even in the absurd fuel queues, people are talking about change. Already, Banda, always a darling of the donor community, is getting promises of support from the West. There is a feeling that Malawi, with its many economic problems, is on its way back up.
There is solidarity and unity among the people in support for their new President. The Guardian included these quotes in a recent article:
“We now have a female president, this to me is the greatest day because she is a mother and a mother always takes care of her children,” said Alice Pemba, a vendor in Lilongwe.
“She will be able to do a good job and surmount the challenges to work with the IMF and World Bank and win back the donor support which we need,” said a local businessman who gave his name only as Tiyazi.
She has two years until the next election. President Banda has a lot of work to do and a lot of expectation on her shoulders. But with all Malawi has to offer and with the strength of its people, one has to believe that better days are ahead.