Ending four years in political exile, Dr. Joyce Banda, once demeaned as a mere “fritter seller”, returned this week in full form, risking possible arrest as she greeted crowds of joyous supporters at the Blantyre airport and in her home town.
The second woman to lead an African country and the first woman president in Malawi, Dr. Banda assured her party faithful that she played no role in the widespread corruption scandal uncovered during her brief administration. “I am not afraid,” she said defiantly. “If they want they can come and arrest me because I have not done any wrong.”
During her two years as president, from 2012 to 2014, Dr. Banda frequently came under attack in the mostly conservative, male-dominated nation. A senior ruling party official declared that Malawi was “not ready for a female president”, while First Lady Callista Mutharika said Mrs Banda was fooling herself that she was a serious politician.
“She will never be president, how can a mandasi [fritter] seller be president?” Mrs Mutharika was reported to say.
Dr. Banda moved abroad after local auditors, digging through ministerial accounts, reported finding the tampering of government budgets to the tune of millions of dollars. It was dubbed “Cashgate” for the huge sums discovered in the homes and cars of civil servants and businesspeople. While not personally implicated in Cashgate, the tempo of the graft reportedly increased during Dr. Banda’s administration.
Over $32 million was misappropriated within just six months in 2013, it was reported. But more recent estimates suggest that more than $280 million might have been stolen since 2009.
In the ensuing trials, an accountant with the Ministry of Tourism, himself indicted in the affair, claimed Ms. Banda had received some of the stolen loot to distribute among voters.
Meanwhile, dissatisfied Malawians took to the streets over the weekend in the first nationwide anti-government demonstration in decades. Dressed in red, protestors chanted “Peter Must Resign!” referring to President Peter Mutharika who they accused of corruption and poor governance. The Mutharikas, Peter and his father Bingu wa Mutharika, led the country for over a decade.
A Pastoral Letter signed by leaders of all 8 Catholic dioceses in the country agreed that Malawi needs a change.
While dismissed as a fritter seller at home, Dr. Banda was voted one of the most powerful women in the world, a champion for the rights of women, children, the disabled and other marginalized groups by Forbes magazine.
She also received the Hunger Project Africa Prize for the Sustainable End of Hunger, shared with Mozambique president Joaquim Chissano in 1997.