The list of gaffes in President Joyce Banda’s speeches continues to grow. Why is this happening? And what does this tell us about Banda’s presidency? EPHRAIM NYONDO writes.
A State of the Nation Address is not just a long and winding bunch of a speech a president must give every year.
It is a hallmark of the country’s public policy direction—a speech that, if well-articulated, can set a positive national tone, seize a moment or shift a debate. If missed, as often as not, it is forgettable, dull, or memorable only for mishaps.
But how is such a speech put together?
Sam Mpasu—one seasoned politician who, during the UDF rule served in various Cabinet positions, became the Speaker of Parliament and who, after UDF fell from power, served as Bakili Muluzi’s spokesperson—describes a State of the Nation Address as a ‘civil service’ political tool for highlighting a government’s public policy direction.
“The President, in the first place, sets the tone. Each ministry, then, submits its well-researched policy direction within the framework of the tone to the principal secretary for fine-tuning. Principal secretaries from various departments come up with a draft, which is sent to the President’s press officer who fine tunes and coordinates them into a full speech,” he says.
What this means is that the State of the Nation Address is a product of various ‘technocratic’ hands behind government machinery.
Tea auction blunder
So, when President Banda, in her State of the Nation Address, says she is the first to introduce a tea auction in a country where the auction has been running for 15 years, what does this speak of the entire set-up involved in developing the speech?
Equally troubling is the fact that this is not the only questionable public pronouncement from the President in few months.
Remember how she assured the public that her trip to Equatorial Guinea was fully funded by the host nation, yet Treasury withdrew K40 million (about $100 000), according to Weekend Nation investigations, from the State coffers for the same? Remember how the President went public, bragging she is the first Malawian leader to visit the White House when history shows Dr Kamuzu Banda visited it in 1967?
Remember how the President declared that Malawi had pulled out of the lake dispute talks with Tanzania, only to resume the talks later?
Of course, the President—not just as a human being but also looking at the complexity of the office’s demands—is not susceptible to such gaffes.
Her predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika could also fall into the trap sometimes.
Remember how Bingu spoke about ‘Mzuzu Corner’ at Chancellor College where, he said, lecturers and students from the North meet to help each other academically—sometimes sharing examination papers? That was a gaffe.
However, the depth and tenacity of JB’s gaffes appears unprecedented, eventually, unravelling many questions about her leadership.
Misled or sabotage
Is it that the President is being deliberately misled or sabotaged by some people below her? Or it is the President herself failing to read through the issues she is presented with?
Underlining that political gaffe erodes public trust in a leader; Mpasu argues that to understand this situation ‘we need to examine how President Banda came to power’.
“She was not voted into the position. She came to power by accident. As such, fearing sabotage from those in the previous government, she fired and misallocated a lot of people in public service and filled it with new ones. The challenge is that these ‘new people’ do not have enough institutional memory of what has been happening before,” he says.
He adds: “With limited institutional memory, it is likely that such people will end up providing the President with information they are not sure of.”
Taking a different perspective from Mpasu, political analyst Rafik Hajat roots Banda’s gaffes on the nature of Malawi’s personality.
“We have a general problem in Malawi that centres on our lack of awareness to deeper issues—be it at the international scene,” he says.
He argues that Malawi is a nation that “lives in a cocoon, trapped in our own parochial reality”.
“We have myopic point of views on various issues, and I believe the President’s actions falls within this background. I think her exposure to issues came at a very later stage, as such, she is struggling to check on facts to appreciate the issues she talks about,” he says.
Political scientist Michael Jana, however, argues that it is the preparation for the May 2014 elections that can explain Banda’s gaffes.
“Political parties, this year, will be busy positioning themselves for elections and people will be told truths, half-truths, distorted truths and lies as parties try to shape public opinion.
“I think most of JB’s actions and inactions at the moment are in that context. I don’t consider most of her utterances and (in) actions as “gaffes” in the sense that they are unintentional mistakes; they are well-planned moves to position herself for re-election, often bordering on desperation given we are now less than 12 months from elections.
“Remember, 2014 will be JB’s first direct public test. She will, therefore, do whatever it takes to give an impression she is the people’s woman with the hope of passing the test. The only thing that is complicating her life at the moment is the economic situation and the fact that she has little policy choices in the context of donors’ unpopular dictate,” he says.
It might be lack of institutional memory in her government, as advanced by Mpasu; or her lack of appreciation of deeper issues as argued by Hajat; or even an urge to prove her mettle as the country descends to 2014, as Jana sees it.
But one thing remains clear: the President’s continued political gaffes are defining her leadership.