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Malawi: Female Candidates and the Politics of Regionalism

With two months to go before Malawians vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on May 19th, 2009, the soup du jour has evolved around two developments, the recent arrest and release on bail, on embezzlement charges, of former president Dr. Bakili Muluzi, and the visits of an African Union delegation of two former African presidents. These developments have overshadowed a major breakthrough that has changed the political landscape for women candidates in Malawi politics.

In the first development, Dr. Muluzi already served two terms from 1994 to 2004, but he claims the constitution allows him to run again, a claim that has received mixed reactions in the country. In the second, former presidents of Ghana and Mozambique, John Kuffour and Joachim Chissano, are attempting, unjustifiably, according to the blog Chingweshole, to prevent what they fear might be a potential violent conflict in the run up to the elections and possibly in the aftermath.

However, eclipsed behind all this drama are two breakthroughs that in early February everyone was talking about as two Malawian firsts: a woman running mate on a major presidential ticket, and another woman as a presidential candidate in her own right. The two women are Hon. Joyce Hilda Banda, currently serving as Malawi's Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Hon. Loveness Gondwe, a member of parliament and president of the newly formed, break-away New Rainbow Coalition Party.

While Hon. Loveness Gondwe's candidacy had been speculated about and expected, it was the choice of Hon. Joyce Banda that shook the country when the incumbent president Dr Bingu wa Mutharika presented his nomination papers to the Malawi Electoral Commission on February 6th, and it became known that the Hon. Joyce Hilda Banda would be Dr. Mutharika's running mate. This was after names of running mates for the main contenders had become a much-discussed guessing game in which it appeared each of the candidates was unsure who to choose, waiting to see who the other would pick first. It was a “stage-managed” and “secretive” process, according to blogger Boniface Dulani.

Much of the speculation on who was going to be Dr. wa Mutharika's running mate centered around Malawi's Minister of Finance, Hon. Goodall Gondwe, a highly respected economist and former International Monetary Fund (IMF) official widely regarded as the brains behind Malawi's economic and agricultural turn-around since 2004, alongside Dr. wa Mutharika himself. Hon. Goodall Gondwe was recently awarded a prize as the best performing finance minister in Africa in 2008. Adding to the anticipation was the fact that Hon. Goodall Gondwe comes from the northern region of Malawi, seen as historically marginalized given its relatively smaller population compared to Malawi's two other regions, the center and the south.

Malawi's first president, Dr. Hasting Kamuzu Banda, came from the central region, where political power was concentrated throughout his 30 year rule. From 1994 to 2004 the center for power shifted to the southern region, where erstwhile president Dr. Bakili Muluzi, hails from. Current president Bingu wa Mutharika, who comes from the southern region, is seen as having given the northern region a much-denied political boost, with Goodall Gondwe's finance portfolio being seen as one such example. It was therefore a point of much debated anticipation as to whether Mutharika was going to select a northerner as his running mate.

joyce-banda-hunger-project1
Hon. Joyce Banda–Hunger Project Photo

Reactions to the news created a heated debate especially on Internet forums, where it was quickly observed that Dr. wa Mutharika's choice of Hon. Joyce Banda was a departure from the norm in which the vice president since 2004 has always been from a region other than the president's. Some also saw it as a betrayal of the northern region, a loyal constituency. Blogger-Journalist Bright Sonani observed:

Its no longer a secret. The Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP has finally come out in the open expressing disappointment over President Bingu wa Mutharika’s choice of Joyce Banda as his running mate instead of Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe, whose name was at the centre of debate as the likely person to pair up with the DPP leader.

Some claimed the president had played a “regionalistic” card”, while others suggested that the president was being pragmatic as well as promoting gender equality, noting that in fact Hon. Joyce Banda's husband, former Chief Justice Richard Banda, is himself a northerner.

Other reactions focused on her achievements and rise to influence, observing that she was the 1997 recipient, together with then Mozambican president Joachim Chissano, of the Africa Leadership Prize, awarded by the New York-based Hunger Project.

The blog Malawi Politics went on to add that:

This appointment follows service as a Member of Parliament and Minister for Gender, Children's Affairs and Community Services where she fought for Malawi's recently enacted Domestic Violence Bill, which had failed for seven years previously. In addition, she designed the National Platform for Action on Orphans and Vulnerable Children and the Zero Tolerance Campaign against Child Abuse.

The Honorable Joyce Banda has advanced legislation and generated educational opportunities to assure the economic well-being of countless women and girls and forever changed Malawi.

But for blogger Isaac Ziba, a self-identifying northerner himself, it did not matter that Hon. Joyce Banda came from the south. Ziba saw the move as part of a much needed “exorcism” the country needs to undergo to get rid of the “regionalism” mentality:

I, for one, am happy with the pick of Joyce Banda as running mate of and to President Dr Bingu wa Muntharika in the forthcoming general elections. This is because I totally believe that Malawi can and should be one and Malawi can be treated as one country – with only one fragment – Malawi. There are those that think Malawi can only be represented if Malawi has three fragments – the North, the Centre and the South. We have tried this platform for ages on end – it is not working for our people – and we do need – not just a paradigm shift but a paradigm change in the way we do not only our politics but our national endeavours as well – including on the development front.

Mzati Nkolokosa, another blogger-journalist, identifies himself as not coming from the north by listing his friends who are from the north, in a post titled “My Friends from the North.” He says his generation, aged between 25 and 35, is ushering in a new Malawi which looks at ideas rather than region. He points out that sports in Malawi is currently dominated by administrators from the north, but Malawians of his generation have no problem with that, as long as they are delivering the goods:

My generation does not care that Mutharika and Banda are from the South just as we don’t mind that Sports Minister Symon Vuwa Kaunda, Fam president Walter Nyamirandu, Fam CEO Charles Nyirenda, Fam administrative officer Sugzo Nyirenda and Flames coach Kinnah Phiri are from the North.

Whether they hold their meetings in Tumbuka or Tonga, my generation does not care. All we care is that they have delivered and continue to do so. They have turned the Flames from perpetual losers to winners. They are in their positions on merit, not based on place.

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