Joyce Banda and Cashgate, Malawi’s biggest corruption scandal, may forever go down in history together. It cost her the 2014 elections that would have allowed her to return as the President of Malaysia and now it may cost her her freedom.
That had not seemed at all like the legacy that Joyce Banda would leave behind when she came on the scene. She was Malawi’s first female President, the second woman to lead a country in Africa and she came to power in a really spectacular way.
Joyce Banda cut her teeth in politics in 1999; she won a parliamentary seat on the ticket of the former ruling United Democratic Front and held a number of cabinet positions under former President Bakili Muluzi and President Bingu wa Mutharika Mutharika during his first term.
Then President Bingu wa Mutharika, now late, chose to appoint her as his running mate for the 2009 elections. She became the first female vice President off of that unusual decision.
She, however, did not fall in with all President Mutharika’s plans as most people would. WHen the President announced plans for his brother, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Mutharika, to succeed him as president in 2014 when he was due to retire, she publicly stood up to him.
Joyce Banda refused to endorse the President’s plan and for her efforts she was thrown out of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Her named would be bandied around derisively after that in public rallies and on Malawi’s state airwaves.
At one point, First Lady Callista Mutharika called her a mere market woman selling fritters, saying that she was fooling herself that she was a serious politician.
Joyce Banda, however, never agreed to the demands for her to resign the country’s vice-president, since she was elected and not appointed, she could not be fired by President Mutharika. She set up her own People’s Party instead and when the 78-year-old President Bingu wa Mutharika died in office she took over from him.
Politics was not all there was to Joyce Banda. In 1981, she left her first husband taking her three children with her, because he was abusive. Eight years after that she founded the National Association of Business Women, a group that lends start-up cash to small-scale traders. She also set up the Joyce Banda Foundation, a charity that assists Malawian children and orphans through education.
In 1997 she was awarded, along with former Mozambican President Joachim Chissano, the US-based Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger.
With such a history, expectations were high for Joyce Banda but then Cashgate happened. A computer-based financial information storage system was at the centre of the scandal.
Government officials were said to have exploited a loophole in the system to divert millions from government coffers. When it was discovered, about $250m was estimated to have been lost through allegedly fraudulent payments to businessmen for services that were not rendered.
The whole scandal burst open after the shooting of then budget director of the finance ministry, Paul Mphwiyo, in September 2013. Before his death, a junior civil servant was allegedly found with cash totaling more than $300,000 in the boot of his car.
Considering that up to 40% of Malawi’s annual budget was funded by donors, the country was almost grounded when infuriated donors withheld $150m pending further investigation into the scandal.
Malawians were also shocked by the allegations and although Joyce Banda argued that she initiated appropriate steps, including investigating, apprehending and prosecuting suspects as soon as she became aware of them, some people linked the scandal to the president. According to them, President Joyce Banda was trying to raise funds for the May election campaign.
Now, police in Malawi have issued an arrest warrant for former President Joyce Banda over Cashgate. They claim to have “unearthed credible evidence” in connection with the $250m (£190m) cashgate corruption scandal which “raises reasonable suspicion that the former president committed offences relating to abuse of office and money laundering”.
The former President is currently outside the country and the police have said they will ask Interpol for help in getting her to come home. Joyce Banda is yet to comment on the allegations against her.