Since the unexpected death of Bingu wa Mutharika, I’ve been rather hopeful for Malawi. While Mutharika had an incredibly promising start, his second term was marred with paranoia, aggression and growing signs of dynasty-building and patronage politics. Thanks to a heart attack, we were graced with Joyce Banda, the country’s first female president, who appears to be both modest and incredibly pragmatic, while naturally eschewing the big bwana syndrome while has characterized so much of Malawian politics.
Banda’s sudden appearance on the global scene has excited a lot of people. Perhaps unfairly, many consider her to be Malawi’s best chance of rising above the seemingly-endless cycle of dashed expectations. The Guardian recently ran a behind-the-scenes piece on her which, while captivating and well done, only serves to further entrench these hopes.
To a large extent I share these expectations, and was happy to hear that Banda had decided to sell off the presidential jet and cut the presidential salary to less than what an Oxford post-doc makes in a year. Then I chatted to my mother the other day, who pointed out to me that while watching a BBC show on the posh London hotel Claridge’s, she had spotted Ms. Banda’s husband, having booked for 11 nights with his entourage of fifteen people (it happens at about the 11 minute mark here). Indeed, it appears that Ms. Banda also stayed at Claridge’s during her first state visit to the UK, during which she made the announcement about selling off her jet. While rates for a basic room at Claridges are roughly £400, its suites (which the programme suggests the Bandas stayed in) can be as expensive as £3,000 a night. The doorman proudly quips “it is Mr. President,” referring to Joyce Banda’s husband, noting he had been to Claridges before.
Perhaps the Banda’s get a special a discount, or the donors ponied up the cash for their London stay, or perhaps Richard Banda has a good pension from serving as Malawi’s Chief Justice. Maybe it’s reasonable to expect heads of state to enjoy a little luxury. Still, it’s awfully good to be the president (or at least the president’s husband).