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In whose interest is JB’s hiring of a London PR firm? Malawi ‘cash-gate’

If you have been paying attention you will have noticed that President Joyce Banda (JB) saves two, somewhat distinct constituencies – the international community and Malawians.

A year ago, I wrote a piece arguing that the JB the world sees is not the same JB Malawians know. Until the recent aid freeze by major donors, President Banda has been a darling of the West, she received people’s good will and most folks desperately wanted her to succeed as a president of Malawi, for various reasons.

Serving two masters is always a tricky business, and it is what JB has had to do. Juggling donors demands, especially fiscal measures and immediate needs of Malawians, majority of whom have suffered directly from donor imposed fiscal measures – notably the 49% currency devaluation about 17 months ago. Yet, President Banda cannot ignore either end of the contrasting interests. She is fully aware of how Malawi economy nosedived when her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika lost Western backing, and she needs good will from Malawians, both for social harmony and, perhaps most importantly from her perspective, because there are elections next May.

The fear of losing elections next year when President Banda and her People’s Party will be contesting for the first, the fear of losing donors – which she has now through different circumstances; and the need to win rural votes has pitted JB against minority group of urban Malawians. Majority of this minority rely on public service delivery for day-to-day upkeep. Essential things as running water in their houses and workplace (Water Board), electricity, fuel etc. these services have become increasingly erratic at the same time when Malawians are being asked to pay more due to running away inflation, induced by donor-influenced austerity measures.

The embezzlement of state resources at the Capital Hill – cashgate, has turned out to be the unifying factor. The donor community and most Malawians are angry with Malawi government; they are demanding answers and action. Crisis at home and anger abroad – this is new insofar as JB’s 18 months presidency is concerned. The government is now tightening its fiscal belt. Among other things, it has imposed a travel ban on civil servants; they can only travel on crucial assignment. This is a good step and perhaps a condition that should always be there. Two many ministers following the president around on her everyday journeys, using state resources while skipping their ministerial duties.

The Cashgate induced aid freeze is an opportunity for the government to explore better and efficient fiscal measures. Instead, President Banda is hell-bent on protecting her international appeal and image.

According to The Telegraph, a British broadsheet, JB’s administration hired a London based public relations (PR) firm to manage JB’s international image. Her administration through the PR firm, Bell Pottinger, recently released a statement on behalf of Malawi government telling the Westerners that looting of state resources in Malawi started under previous administrations and “that Mrs Banda had consistently spoken out about, and act on corruption.”

I doubt JB can prove this; it is perhaps the reason why no examples of her fight against corruption was mentioned, let alone the fact that JB was a key members of all those previous administrations and she has been in power for 17 months without anything to show for her alleged fight against corruption.

Nonetheless, there are important questions that her administration needs to address: who accounts for the hiring of the PR firm? How long has this administration been hiring PR firms to manage JB’s international image? Does this explain why the JB Malawians know is not necessarily the same one that the international community see? Of what use is JB’s image management by a foreign PR firm to Malawi taxpayers? What is JB hiding?

By hiring a PR firm JB is admitting that she has an image problem – this is what this PR firm is there to fix, and the international community is buying it, not donors anymore, they have local representatives and they can see through the velvet curtain. Look around and see the amount of awards JB has won, awards that have no resemblance, whatsoever to realities on the ground.

Richard Dowden, Executive Director of Royal African Society, an influential London based think-tank specialising on Africa told The Telegraph that he would be “amazed” if JB was aware of the looing of state resources or allowed it to happen apparently because JB comes from an NGO background and not a political one.

Now if Dowden, a respected figure on African affairs has this skewed view of what is happening in Malawi, what more an average person? It is even more disturbing when Dowden’s inaccurate comments are picked by this news organisation and pass it on “news” for Malawians to read. That is what PR is for – passing on lies as truths.

*Jimmy Kainja is a MaraPost traditional Columnist 

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