A rendezvous with the President
Joyce Banda is on a mission to get the trade tap open, to get petrol in the pumps, to get food on the shelves, and to get investment coming in. Will she succeed for Malawi?
I met a President last week. We were in the same room three times in a day. At one stage I think she thought I was a stalker. The first was a meeting with parliamentarians, the second was a set speech. The last was something altogether different.
Full disclosure. I am not a stalker really. I actually care about the country. I was born there. I have a fledgling charity focused on the country. And I had watched in dismay as the warm heart of Africa became isolated over the last few years under the last President, Bingu Mutharika.
Okay back to the story. The big set speech was at Chatham House around midday. Lots of UK based Malawians were there along with some charity workers, do-gooders, assorted Africa and Malawi fans and a few reporters. The theme was “Malawi’s Policy and Priorities for a Globalized World.” The President delivered a good, solid and wide ranging speech. It was substantial and is worth reading.
She made all the right noises and hit all the required buttons. There were some jokes that she could even have written herself. She sounded balanced, reasonable, grown up and avoided ranting. The speech was pitched very well for someone trying to open the taps of aid that had been closed by the dependent country’s last President. Again - all the right noises. Good content; delivery wasn't bad either.
The first meeting was very different. It was with a very small group of parliamentarians organised by the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Zambia and Malawi and organised by Al Gunn. When I say small - there were three members of the House of Lords and I huddling on a couple of sofas in an anteroom of a hotel. And the Malawian President. Talk about cosy; talk about being a gate crasher!
She was late, and when she arrived eventually, she was professional, polite, friendly and apologetic. A staffer took the blame for the diary mix up. She was charming yet not a chink of Joyce Banda showed. She was Her Excellency President Joyce Banda, President of Malawi.
After her welcome and her apologies she made some introductory comments. They were good. They were solid. They made sense. She had lines to take. There was a script in front of her. All was coherent, lucid and considered. The sort of lines people like me write for people like her. Say the right things - don’t screw up.
Then she took questions. The first question; a welcome and an official congratulation came from a peer. Then I jumped in.
I introduced myself and said that I was born in Blantyre. At this point it seemed like the President exited and Joyce Banda burst into the room. She smiled. Her eyes danced. She was fun. She was human. Then I asked my question. She answered. The President was back.
And then came the third meeting of my Malawi Day. This was the meeting of the diaspora, Malawians in the UK. It was the big packed “come all” meeting. It was so oversubscribed that she had to hold the meeting twice with two different crowds. I was in the second group that had to wait for “half an hour” for our half an hour. An hour later we were still waiting. A friend of mine grinned at me and said wryly, “Malawi Time.”
Eventually we shuffled in for the second session. Some people were dressed in the party colours with Tango coloured orange ties or orange dresses or scarves. A wonderful dynamic uber-personality Malawian preacher with a huge wild frizzy Afro sat at the front. She had chatted with us and networked furiously while we had been waiting. She was great. She was called on to offer a prayer to start and close the proceedings. The no-nonsense hotel security who looked ex-forces made sure that everyone was seated - no standing allowed.
Eventually the President spoke. To her people. Her tempo changed. She ad-libbed. She made jokes. She made points that were whooped at and applauded. She asked rhetorical questions. Brilliant ones. Like saying that (insert patently bad or corrupt or undemocratic practice) should and would be stopped, then asking - “What sort of country would do that?”. She compared the hundreds of thousands of tons exported of a particular crop under Malawi’s first President Hastings Kamuzu Banda with the 14000 tonnes exported last year under her predecessor. “What kind of country goes backwards?” she asked?
She repeated her story of selling off the USD $220000 a year Presidential jet and 60 Ministerial cars. Her gag about being happy to be a hitchhiker President went down a storm. She understands the PR of setting an example too.
She was also challenging. She said that the country did not simply want aid. It also wanted trade. She challenged everyone present in their smart UK bought clothes to pay the USD$60-100 a year to support a Malawian child who was not part of their family.
When I left, I had her words ringing in my ears: What kind of country would do that?
I also kept replaying her wonderful story of the first drive in public she took as President. People mobbed the car shouting "Joyce, Joyce, Joyce!" Her husband said something and she answered quickly - if we don’t make progress fast in six months they will be throwing stones.
In the West the media constructs artificial time frames. Your first 100 days. Your first month. Your first year. She understands better than that. She was focusing on getting the aid tap open; petrol in the pumps; food on the shelves; investment coming in; trade staring up.
She seems to understand the what and the where of vision-setting and she seems to understand the how of implementation. She sounds like she has a plan and is going for it. And she has already made huge progress. Other countries have taken her at her word. Goods and petrol have started to flow.
So what about the future? Time will tell. Will she stay true to her very good words? Will she become corrupted and tempted by her position like so many others have been? Will she allow others to be? What kind of country will it be?
13 million people depend on her to have and implement a positive vision for the country. She has the goodwill. She has the chance to become Mandela or Mugabe; a hero or a zero. Place your bets ladies and gentlemen.
In the meantime - I want to take this opportunity to wish the President good luck with implementing her vision. Oh and by the way, she is at her very, very best when she is being Joyce Banda. Human being. Real.
Peter Botting is a professional corporate, political and personal messaging strategist. He was integral to the NO2AV campaign and helped put the UK Anti-Slavery Day into law. He tweets at @PeterBotting and you can find more of his work at www.peterbotting.co.uk
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