Santa in Africa

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper just wrapped up a visit to two African countries at polar ends of the development spectrum.

On October 9th, he arrived in Senegal like Santa Claus bearing $20 million worth of gifts to assist in food distribution in areas hit by famine. This is in addition to the $57 million the government has directed towards humanitarian relief for drought victims. The sacks of cash ‘Santa Claus’ is giving to Senegal is a signal of Santa’s approval of the country’s progress.

Since Independence in 1960, this West African country which used to be a major depot for transatlantic slavery, has enjoyed bonafide political stability which has made it a popular holiday destination for tourists around the world. Although Senegal is a predominantly Islamic country, women have made significant strides in becoming decision makers in politics and the economy. The Senegalese are politically savvy and are known for delivering shocking political upsets to governments that they deem irresponsive to their needs. President Abdoulaye Wade got a taste of this trait when he altered the constitution to run for a third term in office. In March, Senegal raced to the polls in record numbers and delivered a resounding defeat to Wade by electing opposition leader Macky Sall as the new President of Senegal. The power of democracy prevails in Senegal.

As Santa Stephen Harper toured the capital, Darkar, he continued to shower the country with presents; $5 million to support youth development, $7 million to improve map technology and $70 million from CIDA. Though there are still gaps in literacy, access to health care and corruption, Senegal is a model country in Africa and the message from Santa was clear: Rewards are reserved for they that have been ‘nice’.

The next stop for Santa was the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that has been rocked with instability since 1965 when Mobutu Sese Sekoe overthrew anti-colonial freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba from power. After 32 years in office, Mobutu was driven into exile and the Democratic Republic of Congo spiralled into a bloody civil war. An uneasy peace agreement was signed in 2003 and last year, Joseph Kabila was sworn in as President amidst accusations of a rigged election.

Santa Stephen Harper arrived in Kinshasa on October 11th to attend the Francophone summit. His visit was condemned by Canadians like Romeo Dallaire who criticized the Premier for visiting a country that has a notorious record for human rights abuses. But still playing the role of father Christmas, Harper offered a $20 million investment in programs that support responsible and transparent mining of natural resources.

Ironically 2 years ago, when the DRC badly needed international assistance, President Harper refused to increase Canada’s support for a UN mission in Congo. Canada, thus lost an opportunity to curb flagrant human rights abuses and unprecedented level of sexual violence against women. But the country is on the mend, albeit slowly. Addressing a news conference, Mr. Harper made it a point to express his disapproval with the DRC and urged the next summit to be held in a democratic country.

The situation in Senegal and the DRC is a snapshot of Africa. On one hand, you have countries that are building on economic and political stability and then you have others that are trying to find their footing after decades of civil war. Judging by the size of the gift bags, the message from Santa was clear. Reprimand is reserved for the naughty ones.

Don’t mess with this woman

The newly appointed President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, is raising eyebrows for the drastic changes she is implementing in the southern African country. As the marginalized Vice President of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Banda was sworn into office in April 2012 following the unexpected death of President Bingu wa Mutharika.

A month after being sworn in, she announced that she was selling the president’s private jet and downsizing the fleet of limousines that made up the presidential motorcade. When she took office, Malawi was a poor country with millionaire government officials. She cleaned house by ridding the government of loyalists of the late Mutharika who indulged in opulence at the expense of the poor majority. Just last week, this no-nonsense President announced that she would cut her pay by 30% to show Malawians that she is willing to make personal sacrifices inorder to build the nation.

Mrs. Banda has downsized cabinet and security services and promised to lift the country’s ban on homosexuality. She has demonstrated her commitment to economic reform by endorsing the IMF’s advice to devalue  Malawi’s currency, the Kwacha. That notwithstanding, there are genuine concerns that adhering to the IMF’s plans could hamper growth and make Malawi aid dependent. Nonetheless, the steps that Joyce Banda has taken in these short months has earned international approval.

So who exactly is this woman who has been described as a fresh of breath air in African politics? She is a 62 year old mother of five who is a long time activist of women’s rights. A certified business woman who has run successful enterprises, Joyce Banda is a staunch advocate that women should be financially independent. As president, she has opened free press and brought Malawi from the brink of an economic crisis.

In a mark of fearlessness, when the African Union (AU) scheduled a conference in Malawi this past July, Banda threatened to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes if he enters her country. Recognizing that Banda is not a woman of empty words, the AU moved the meeting to Ethiopia. Do not mess with Joyce Banda!

Under her steady stewardship, predictions of a crisis after the death of the president Mutharika have not materialized. Banda has taken swift action to entrench power whilst simultaneously demonstrating to Malawians that hers is a government they can truly believe in.