Let’s hope this is a new page, Madam President

After dissolving her Cabinet over a week ago, President Joyce Banda hired her new management team on Tuesday.

While she has thrown in five new faces, including internationally respected economist Dr. Maxwell Mkwezalamba as Finance Minister, as well as Fahad Assani as Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister—the President has retained roughly 85 percent of her initial team.

Ironically, Assani is the fellow who, as Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in the Bakili Muluzi era, made the astonishing statement that 30 percent of the national budget goes down the drain through fraud and corruption.

No one, therefore, understands the problem more than Assani. As head of the justice system in the country, he may know one or two things about how to bust the thieving syndicate terrorising Capital Hill and sabotaging the country’s economic growth and development.

The President said as much during the Ministers’ swearing in ceremony on Wednesday, stating very clearly that one of Assad’s key performance indicators was how he led the fight against corruption.

She publicly gave him the mandate to review the legal and regulatory framework pertaining to graft if that is what it would take to make a difference.

But for me, maintaining most of the same faces in Cabinet, while problematic in terms of political correctness, is something I can appreciate. Political reality dictates some understanding here.

If she sacks everybody—most of whom are senior members of the People’s Party (PP) critical to her campaign strategy and replace them with rookies—it would destabilise the ruling party less than eight months to the May 2014 Tripartite Elections.

The President cannot afford to have a divided party at a time she needs to leverage all the party’s core skills as well as rank and file architecture to gain competitive edge over opponents.

To accomplish what she has started—assuming she has really started anything effective—Mrs. Banda needs to win the polls first. On that basis, I will not begrudge her political calculations in her Cabinet decisions.

Instead, I will concentrate on two positive takeaways from President Banda’s chess moves. First is the strong signal she has sent to everyone who felt not just entitled to the gravy train and ruling political establishment, but also those who deluded themselves that somehow they were invincible.

Sure, she dissolved Cabinet only to go right ahead and reappoint most of the previous members. But the fact that she fired everyone and basically told them to reapply is enough to bring her charges in line, enforce discipline, demonstrate a tough spine and, most importantly, send a loud and clear message that she is in charge.

The second positive takeaway is the sacking of Ken Lipenga as Finance Minister as well as Ralph Kasambara as Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister.

Lipenga has presided over everything that warrants dismissal during his stint at Treasury and it was time he got thrown under the bus for the good of the greatest number of people.

Most of the fraud was happening at the Accountant General’s Office, which directly falls under the Ministry of Finance. Where was he when all this was happening? Dozing? Paying a blind eye? Only time will tell.

On the other hand, Kasambara was in charge of the country’s justice system, including criminal justice and, obviously, the President must have felt that the renowned lawyer did not do the needful, especially when he was also the man responsible for providing leadership to the anti-corruption drive, yet corruption prospered on his watch.

Furthermore, during the time he was doubling as Attorney General and Justice Minister, there were also numerous concerns that Kasambara had not handled the issue of payouts and compensations as diligently as he should have. His chop, therefore, makes a lot of sense.

The other person who should have been booted out, but has inexplicably been spared, is Home Affairs and Internal Security Minister Uladi Mussa on whose watch fraud and all sorts of nefarious criminal activities have flourished. There were also certain technical heads of ministries and departments that should have been fired, but are still there. I don’t know why.

However, in the final analysis, I hope that the decision to dissolve Cabinet, sack some ministers and bring in new ones, signals a new beginning; the start of business unusual and the end of business as usual.

This is an opportunity for President Banda to start on a fairly clean slate, re-stump her authority and begin to curve out an enduring legacy as the only President who went after corruption and burst it open until it bled into whimpers.

It is a goal that has overwhelming local and international support—and political dividends. It is also a goal that is not just the right thing to do, but also a smart political move.

The President must tap into the collective national anger for both political cover and capital to go where none of her predecessors have dared to go. It will be another first for her—assuming she really wants to do it.

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