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Malawi's head of state: 'Why I'm selling presidential jet'

updated 6:05 AM EDT, Thu June 21, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Joyce Banda was sworn in as president of Malawi in April
  • Malawi, one of world's poorest countries, has devalued its currency by 40%
  • Banda explains why repairing relations with the IMF was so imperative for the country's future
  • She also speaks about why the African Union Summit will no longer be held in Malawi

(CNN) -- Joyce Banda made headlines in April when she was sworn in as president of Malawi, becoming the first female head state in southern Africa and the third in the whole continent.

More recently, she grabbed the spotlight again after deciding to sell her presidential jet and downsize the government's car fleet.

Her move came as Malawi, one of the world's poorest countries, tries to cut spending and deal with its pressing economic challenges -- the government recently cut the value of its currency, the kwacha, by 40%, to restore donor funding by meeting conditions suggested by the IMF.

"The fact that we had to devalue by 40% at once means that Malawians are feeling the shock," Banda says. "While that is going on, they need to see, us, the commitment on our part, particularly right at the top. The political will needs to go through this with the people, side by side."

Banda spoke to CNN's Athena Jones about why she believes repairing her country's relationship with the IMF was so imperative for its future and why the African Union Summit will no longer be held in Malawi.

An edited version of the interview follows.

CNN: You've introduced some fundamental changes already in your country. When it comes to what happened before you, relations with the IMF and with donors had deteriorated significantly under the previous administration. What was the cost to the economy and to the people of Malawi?

Joyce Banda: The bad news is that it's tragic that the former president refused to devalue the kwacha for four years. Because what that could have meant was maybe they could have devalued the kwacha by 10% a year. It would still have been 40% by now.

President leaves Malawi in ruin

But the fact that we had to devalue by 40% at once means that Malawians are feeling the shock, the impact of that huge devaluation and particularly rural people, the poor are the ones that are going to be most affected. That is why there is the austerity plan.

CNN: Talking about the austerity plan, the presidential plane has been sold, the government's car fleet has been significantly down-sized, what other plans do you have to cut government spending?

JB: What I have said to my team is that at a point such as this, with 40% adjustment in our currency, it means that Malawians are paying the price. While that is going on, they need to see, us, the commitment on our part, particularly right at the top. The political will needs to go through this with the people, side by side.

The poor are the ones that are going to be most affected. That is why there is the austerity plan.
Joyce Banda, President of Malawi

And so it's not a luxury I need to have a presidential jet. I need to improve our relationships with our neighbors. It was a thing for me to do and I did it without any reservation. It's fine. We can make that sacrifice now and in the future we shall have a plane. It's not important.

CNN: Are you sending a message with that?

JB: I'm just sending a message to the poor, to show the people, to ordinary Malawians that we can do this together.

CNN: These are some key moves that you've made in just a short period of time, but nearly 40% of your money comes from aid or donors. And that's very important to the development of the country. What about the future though? What about getting to the point where you need less aid?

JB: What I am saying every day to Malawians is that time has come for us to move from aid to trade. We have picked several sectors that we think we can focus on immediately in order for us to grow our economy. So we have decided to diversify agriculture, we decided to develop our tourism sector, we have decided to develop our mining sector. So these are some of the things we're telling Malawians, we say this is what we need to do in order for us to get out of this total dependence on aid. And Malawians are ready.

CNN: The IMF have just agreed to provide a loan of $157 million, relations have been restored with some of your biggest donors. What are your plans for getting the economy out of this cycle of receiving aid and into more self sufficiency?

JB: What we decided to do was, as soon as I was elevated to this position, was to go back on track with the IMF. That was fundamental because it was going to influence all other decisions that were going to be made by all our partners that had withdrawn aid. I have been saying to all our donors that we have gone as far as we can.

What I am saying every day to Malawians is that time has come for us to move from aid to trade.
Joyce Banda, President of Malawi

When there was resistance in Malawi to stay on course with the IMF program, what Malawians were being told is that this resistance is as a result of our belief that if we devalue or if we stay on course, Malawians will suffer. Now I came in and told them the reverse -- I said it's not true. It's when we go the other way, we pass this difficult part that everything should be fine.

Now what Malawians need to see is that while we are making these sacrifices the international community is also moving in time to support us.

CNN: The African Union summit was scheduled to take place in Malawi, now it's taking place in Ethiopia. And it's reported because you decided you did not want to allow Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir into the country. Do you think it would have been better to allow him to arrive into the country and then arrest him?

JB: I want you to know that I don't have any right, Malawi has no right to stop any president from coming to an African Union summit because that is an African Union meeting. But six months ago we had COMESA summit in Malawi and the international community told us that we should not invite president Bashir to come to Malawi. The president of Sudan came to Malawi and attended the meeting. And we went from where we were, which was already bad enough to zero.

CNN: In terms of donors you mean?

JB: In terms of our donors was concerned. I didn't say that he shouldn't come but I made it very clear that we were not prepared to pay that price again. Now it is the African Union that has decided to withdraw the summit. The only concern that I have is that when he was going to attend the summit in South Africa, South Africa said if he comes he will be arrested and Uganda said the same. And the summits were not withdrawn.

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