Blantyre - Malawi President Joyce Banda is hailed by the
international community as a courageous reformer, but those same economic
reforms are making her increasingly unpopular at home.
Thirty-year-old Wizi Lemani, who makes sandals on the side
of the street from worn-out tyres, blames slow business on Banda's austerity
drive and an IMF-inspired decision to devalue Malawi's currency.
"Sales have been slow over the past year. Everybody
says the president is to blame, she devalued the kwacha which has brought
misery to poor people" he told AFP.
Lemani said his income has plummeted to the equivalent of
$100 a month, barely enough to pay for food, rent and transport for his wife
and two children.
Across the country it is a similar picture.
The value of the local currency dropped by more than 50% in
a year, while half of the country's 13 million population live on less than one
dollar a day.
Half of rural households have run out of home-grown maize
stocks four to six months before the next harvest.
Against this grim backdrop, Malawians - like many Europeans
subjected to austerity measures - are increasingly calling the policy, and the
policymaker, into question.
"She is becoming unpopular after a lot of hope was
placed on her," said Lemani.
When Banda became Malawi's first female president a year
ago, expectations were high that she would ease long-standing chronic poverty
and an economy that the president herself described as "a mess".
Under her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, foreign donors
who made up 40% of the country's budget fled and serious fuel shortages
blighted the economy.
Mutharika had refused to devalue the currency during his
eight years in office, arguing it would lead to hyper-inflation and would not
With inflation now standing at around 37%, that argument
seems somewhat prescient.
Still, when Banda promised change she was feted by Hillary
Clinton, who visited the country in August and by the International Monetary
Fund, which after years of absence, granted the country a massive loan.
Banda herself often tells Malawians at rallies that they
should be patient as her economic reforms would "pay off soon after going
through this suffering".
"It's like a boil, it hurts at first but later it gets
Billy Mayaya, one of the country's leading human rights
activists blames Banda for "accepting every prescription" from the
IMF and says it is conspicuous government spending that rankles.
"Her government is still living beyond the means and
with frequent local and international travels, Malawians see this as a
contradiction... that's why she is unpopular," Mayaya said.
But some Malawians are more sympathetic.
Humphrey Mvula, a well-known political pundit, says Banda
should not be assessed "without looking where Malawi is coming from".
Economic recovery plan
"The Mutharika administration had hit a storm on
various parameters such as governance and bad laws. It played itself out of the
rules of the economic game," Mvula told AFP.
He said Banda had no choice but to embrace devaluation and
launching the economic recovery plan, a lynchpin of her government.
"It will take a bit of time for the plan to bear
fruits. Malawians will have to suffer a little before things change for the
better," said Mvula.
He added: "Unless we improve our systems such as
revolutionise our agriculture rather than depending on archaic ways of using
hoes, for a quick return, Malawi will continue to be a beggar because we have a
Chitsa Phiri, a vendor hawking Chinese-made products along
the streets of Blantyre agrees, saying Banda's administration is "paying
for the economic sins of Mutharika."
"How hard she may try, she will remain unpopular
because Mutharika was seen to be tough and stubborn against donors and
Malawians seemed to like him for this stance," Phiri, a university
Voters will let their views be known next year in the
country's fifth multi-party elections.
Her main challenger will be Peter Mutharika, a brother to
the late president who had been anointed as his successor.
The race is thus being tipped as a referendum on Banda's