PLAYING IT SAFE? It is believed that former Malawian president Joyce Banda’s reluctance to return home may be due to pending criminal charges against her over her alleged role in Cashgate. Picture: Itumeleng English

Malawi has a self-proclaimed political exile, immediate past former president Joyce Banda, who has been holed up in South Africa since she lost the polls in Malawi on May 20 last year.

Banda, then Malawi’s vice-president, became the country’s third president after the death of her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, on April 12, 2012.

She announced that she would not be returning to Malawi citing her compromised personal security and that of her family, lack of a proper house and a 17-month unpaid salary among others.

“I would like to advise the nation that my much-anticipated return to Malawi will be delayed. The delay has been caused by serious security concerns after the Malawi government’s delay in providing a secure and decent house in a secure locality for me and my family,” said Banda, through her spokesman Andekuche Chanthunya.

However, her decision not to come home vindicates long-held fears that Banda may be avoiding litigation following her alleged role in the Cashgate scandal where under her watch, public servants and unscrupulous and/or ghost companies siphoned millions from the public purse for goods and services not delivered.

Malawi is investigating the disappearance of $48 million during Banda’s presidency, and $214m during the reign of Bingu wa Mutharika. The directorate of public prosecutions says there are about 70 suspects awaiting trial for fraud, and many more face arrest.

Several key suspects and convicts in the ongoing trials on Cashgate, have fingered Banda, in warning and caution statements and testimonies, as the mastermind of Cashgate. Although a number of Banda’s senior party members and government officials have been fingered in local media reports, the government has arrested only one former cabinet minister and several senior and junior civil servants.

During question time on public television this week, President Peter Mutharika said: “I think the time has come where we have to stop the scenario of a new president always persecuting or prosecuting a former president. It is not a crime to be president. That has to stop.”

A recent study by the Institute for Public Opinion and Policy Research indicates that over 40 percent of Malawians believe Banda was the brains behind Cashgate. Lead researcher Dr Boniface Dulani, of Chancellor College of the University of Malawi, said respondents were asked to mention who they thought was most responsible for Cashgate and their public perceptions on the scandal.

Politically, Banda’s long absence is destabilising her People’s Party as evidenced by massive resignations and defections of its top leaders.

According to Chanthunya, Banda’s return is also compromised because the Malawi government is abdicating its responsibility in giving her retirement benefits.

The President’s (Salaries and Benefits) Act 1994, Section 4 (1) states that a retired president shall be entitled to such a salary, which shall be tax-free, as parliament may, from time to time, appropriate him or her.

Other benefits and facilities include free houses in Blantyre, Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzuzu, and at Chikoko Bay in Mangochi. And free transport, duty-free importation of items for personal use, a motorcade escort and presidential convoys.

It further provides for free food, free water, free electricity, free medical services and a personal physician for the president, spouse and children under the age of 18.

“None of these have been accorded since she left office in May 2014,” Chanthunya said.

He also said the government’s reduction of Banda’s security detail in June this year during a total breakdown of security in Malawi, exposed her to harm.

“On November 19, 2010, when she was vice-president, her official vehicle, a Mercedes-Benz saloon, registration number MG 2, was involved in a mysterious road accident at Kanengo in Lilongwe.

“The decision to weaken her security detail this time round and attempts by the DPP administration to victimise her are reminiscent of the 2010 events,” Chanthunya said.

The Malawi government claims it has CCTV footage of Banda’s 23 meetings with chief Cashgate convict Oswald Lutepo and other senior People’s Party members at four different state residences in the country. Lutepo is now serving an 11-year jail term.

Banda is the founder and president of the People’s Party.

“It’s not strange that Lutepo and other senior People’s Party members had meetings with Banda because Lutepo was an executive member of the party,” Chanthunya said.

Lutepo, a former senior member of Banda’s Party, revealed during his trial that the main mastermind had been Banda.

“They used my account as a conduit. I have been to State House several times to deliver the money. If there are closed camera circuits there, it will prove me,” he said.

On Thursday Collins Mtika won the 2015 Haller Prize for Development Journalism. Mtika, from Malawi, won £3 000 for his article My mobile, my inputs, my market – ICT set to reform Malawi’s agriculture.