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Joyce Banda opts for reputation management above authentic reform over Malawi ‘cash-gate’- Ntata

At the heart of the “Cashgate” corruption scandal in Malawi is the call for President Joyce Banda to take the necessary bold and credible steps demonstrating that is determined to deal with the scourge in a practical way.

It is with a desire to give Lilongwe an added incentive to make these necessary steps that various stakeholders, particularly the government of the United Kingdom though their Aid Agency, the Department for International Development (DFID) have suspended aid to Malawi.

Sarah Sanyahumbi, the Department for International Development’s head in Malawi, is quoted in “The Telegraph” as saying that the “Cashgate” scandal, which saw central government pay out for goods and services that were never supplied and senior officials arrested with wads of banknotes in their car boots and houses, had demonstrated “serious weaknesses in the government’s financial systems”.

“This is not business as usual,” she said. “As far as we are concerned, the line has been crossed, so once the line has been crossed you cannot go back to what you had before.” The British government position follows the positions taken earlier by Malawi’s other biggest donor, the European Union and Norway.

In response to these developments, it appears, however, that intoxicated by the Cashgate loot, President Joyce Banda is not interested in restoring the substantive integrity of her administration, nor demonstrating her government’s commitment to bring economic stability to Malawi.

President Banda is more concerned in managing the damage done to her international reputation, as demonstrated by the engagement of the London based reputation management firm, Bell Pottinger. Embarassed by Cashgate and humiliated by her failure to so far present a convincing strategy for dealing with the situation, President Joyce Banda has turned to expensive reputation management experts who could cost the Malawi government as much as £250,000 (MK175 million) just to clean up her reputation to the international community.

The question that not even the reputation management firm itself is asking is whether at the height of the cashgate scandal that has stopped many crucial social services in Malawi because of the lack of funds, the Malawi Government can afford to be paying out this sort of money to them for this purpose.

Perhaps with its vast experience in reputation management, Bell Pottinger will somehow find a way to explain why Spending money on managing President Banda’s reputation is more important that having medicines in hospitals, books in schools and feeding starving mothers and children.

Additionally, if President Joyce Banda is paying for this service from her so called “personal funds”, then the question still persists: Where is she getting this kind of money?

For the benefit of all Malawians, and all those that may wonder how Bell Pottinger can accept such an ethically questionable consultancy, it is important to give a brief background of Bell Pottinger.

Bell Pottinger is the largest UK-based multinational public relations consultancy measured by 2010 fee income. It is known for representing dictators and other political leaders with questionable international reputations.

On 5 December 2011, the British national newspaper “The Independent” ran a front page story based on covert filming by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism which the paper claimed revealed executives from Bell Pottinger boasting of ways in which they burnished the reputations of countries accused of human rights violations. On 8 December 2011, the UK national newspaper “The Daily Telegraph” reported that some Wikipedia user accounts allegedly linked to Bell Pottinger had been suspended. Its report stated, “the company made hundreds of alterations to Wikipedia entries about its clients (…), some of them adding favourable comments and others removing negative comments. Alterations were said to have been made by a user – traced to a Bell Pottinger computer – who used the pseudonym “Biggleswiki On the same day, “The Independent” reported that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales had described Bell Pottinger as “ethically blind”, after it had admitted altering Wikipedia pages relating to its clients.

Thus while Malawi’s international donors such as DFID are making moves to persuade President Joyce Banda to practice fiscal integrity and accountability, and at a time when Malawians are expecting change and decisive anti-corruption steps, President Banda has turned at a huge cost to an ethically challenged reputation management firm to gloss her corruption with some sugar coating.

The fruits of Bell Pottinger’s work are already evident. Inexplicably, Richard Dowden, the Executive Director of the Royal African Society is quoted as opining that President Joyce Banda is unlikely to have been involved in Cashgate. Dowden does not give any basis upon which he forms this opinion. Not too long ago, Dowden wrote in his book, “Africa”, ‘The shit changes but the flies remain the same.’ He has written and commented on African politics for over 30 years. For someone with so much experience, it is amazing that he can he stand on the mountain tops of the Savanna and attempt to speak on behalf of the oppressed people in the valleys and not see the huge gulf of disconnectedness.

That Dowden is not competent enough to endorse Joyce Banda on this issue or any other is evident in the fact that he is just too far from the events in Malawi. This is evident in his comments about President Joyce Banda, for he seems unaware that President Banda is not immediately from the NGO community. She served at a very high level of the Bakili Muluzi administration, and served as both Foreign Affairs Minister and later as Vice President in the Bingu wa Mutharika regime. For the benefit of Dowden and others keen and anxious to comment but unfamiliar with the facts of Malawi and of the Cashgate scandal, this author’s report on Cashgate entitled “Licence to Loot” can provide the starting point as to who is at the helm of the scandal in Malawi.

In spite of the loss of confidence in her administration in Malawi, the breakdown of her relationship with her people, and moves by the donor community and other well-wishers to help her take the Cashgate corruption scandal seriously, President Joyce Banda is unconcerned about restoring popular trust in her administration. Her interest is in maintaining an appearance of a popularity that no longer exists, and managing a reputation in the face of the international community that largely is unaffected by the consequences of her looting and the bankrupting of Malawi happening under her watch.

Assuming that Bell Pottinger’s expertise in image bleaching succeed, do Malawians not deserve more in their leaders that simply a spuriously bleached Joyce Banda? Is a cosmetically burnished leader with no anti-corruption strategy whatsoever what Malawi deserves as it strives for economic development and fiscal independence?

One can only hope, for the sake of poor Malawians, that the international community will not allow itself to be misled and deceived by the machinations of the mighty Bell Pottinger, and begin to believe that President Joyce Banda is dealing with the corruption in Malawi when she is not, or that she is not herself implicated in it. This would be yet another betrayal of the Malawian people. With their leader more concerned about her reputation than about fixing the country, Malawians are counting on responsible stakeholders such as international donors and other international institutions to help them bring a sense of responsibility to their president, and some hope to their country.

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