Monday, April 29, 2013

Joyce Banda: Mugabe's charmed new ally
Getting along well ... Banda with Mugabe and his wife Grace in Mazowe on Thursday
25/04/2013 00:00:00
by Staff Reporter

SHE was cast as the new poster girl for western imperialism in the region by Zimbabwe’s state-run media, but Malawian President Joyce Banda – on a five-day state visit to Zimbabwe – is facing anything but hostility from her hosts.

Banda arrived on Tuesday to a royal welcome with not just President Robert Mugabe at the Harare International Airport to meet her but Vice President Joice Mujuru too.

The entire security services top brass was also there as Banda was treated to a 21-gun salute and a 21-gun salute and asked to inspect a guard of honour.

Her elevation to President of Malawi was a major inconvenience for Mugabe, who had in Banda’s late predecessor, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, a staunch ally against what both men saw as western encroachment into their countries’ internal affairs and manipulation of political processes to prop up puppet opposition leaders.

Since assuming the presidency on April 12 last year following Mutharika’s sudden death, Banda has implemented a raft of reforms and pursued a different economic course to his predecessor, principally a massive devaluation of the kwacha and the removal of major subsidies on fuel and other commodities, all in the name of attracting foreign investment.

In her first contact with Zimbabwe, she demanded the immediate full settlement of a 2007 US$23 million loan granted in the form of maize.

The immediate prize for her actions was a three-year loan of $157 million from the International Monetary Fund which is back in Malawi pursuing its long-running project of structural adjustment. These funds had been withheld from the recalcitrant Mutharika, along with an $80 million credit facility.

Western nations increased aid to Malawi, led by former colonial power Britain which remains locked in a diplomatic spat with Mugabe, who was slapped with European Union sanctions since 2000.
The US-based international NGO World Justice Project (WJP) praised Banda as a bright spark for democracy in Africa.

“If we are to see change in the region and the rest of the developing world, it is time to highlight and support the work of countries that are committed to forging ahead,” the WJP said about Malawi.

Banda’s open line to the West – Mugabe’s pet enemy – unnerved those in the Zimbabwean leader’s inner circle who began to see Banda as a Trojan Horse in the regional solidarity against the alleged Western interference.

The state-run Herald newspaper said in an editorial that “Malawi is a good example of why we should never sell our nations to the donor community. President Joyce Banda is today a darling of the donor community because she is dancing to their tune.”

Caesar Zvayi, one of the newspaper’s senior editors, suggested that Banda “does not have a mind of her own” while calling her a “Western appeaser”.

But Mugabe, demonstrating the enigma that has kept him in power for 33 years, then pulled a surprise move, inviting the Malawian leader to officially open the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in Bulawayo on Friday.

Mugabe’s motivations are many, not least the fact that Malawi is an important neighbour and traditional ally for Zimbabwe with a shared colonial past. But the Zanu PF leader would also have had one eye on elections expected within months in the immediate aftermath of which he will need endorsement by regional leaders, should he emerge victorious.

On Wednesday, Banda visited the Boka Tobacco Auction Floors where she witnessed firsthand how black farmers, most of them beneficiaries of land reforms championed by Mugabe in the face of international condemnation, are thriving.

“I am impressed by your programmes in the agricultural sector and I have already planned to go back and send a group of our experts to come and learn from our brothers and sisters,” she said.

On Thursday, President Mugabe and the First Lady Grace Mugabe took Banda on the road to Mazowe where she was given a tour of the couple’s Gushungo Dairy Estate; the Grace Mugabe Children’s Home for orphans and the Amai Mugabe Junior School.

“Throughout my adulthood, I have been running a lot, including mobilising underprivileged children, but what I saw today makes me feel small,” gushed Banda, who was accompanied by her husband, Retired Chief Justice Richard Banda.

On Friday, Banda officially opens the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in Bulawayo, the final official engagement of her first visit to Malawi’s southern neighbour as President.

Whether her trip will lift any mistrust remains to be seen but the old fox Mugabe will hope he has recruited a new ally, even a passive one.

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