If Malawi’s new President Joyce Banda needed a sobering reminder of her daunting to-do list, a trip to a local supermarket in search of a bag of sugar was all that would be needed.
A shortage of the household staple is the latest crisis to hit the ailing economy – battered by years of daily foreign currency and fuel shortages – which Malawians expect the newly sworn-in leader to sort out.
“I have been here since six o’clock in the morning. There’s a scarcity of sugar in Malawi – it’s about one month now,” said Moses Tstate, 32, after nearly four hours in a very long sugar queue.
“It’s so frustrating, just because this product is made in Malawi but it’s nowhere to be found.”
Locals see Banda as a saviour to the former British colony’s woes brought on by the late Bingu wa Mutharika who oversaw a souring of donor ties, including aid cuts, curtailed freedoms and widely criticised economic policies.
The 61-year-old has already scored points since taking office on Saturday by calling for unity and purging Mutharika allies from top posts, including the police chief whose force shot dead 19 people in anti-government riots last year.
But Malawians, already living in one of the world’s poorest nations, are also watching for signs of an economic turn-around from southern Africa’s first woman leader.
“The president should focus on getting business running again! That’s all,” said Daniel Dunga, CEO of the Society of Accountants in Malawi.
“That requires a few things done together but top most is forex (foreign exchange) availability. Everything else follows that.”
The key will be repairing damaged ties with global lenders and donors who are Malawi’s biggest source of foreign exchange, and who fund up to half the national budget.
The devaluation of the local kwacha and a review of an investor-hostile tax system were also needed, he said.
“The crisis is very deep,” added Dunga. “Business is grounding to a halt. The economy simply isn’t moving.”
Civic groups say that Malawians already feel some changes politically.
“Right now we are no longer living in fear, in the way we used to just four, five days ago, because we have a new president who believes in democratic principles,” said Undule Mwakasungula, chairman of the Human Rights Consultative Committee, which had called for Mutharika to step down.
“But I think the economy needs a long-term approach – economically we are in mess.”
Banda has a civil society background and was a vocal Mutharika critic after the pair fell out. But her favourable early reviews are in a Malawi that is no longer prepared to silently accept poor leadership.
Frustrations in the normally peaceful southern African nation boiled over last year into deadly riots. And Mutharika’s death on Thursday, from a heart attack, was amid furious calls for his resignation and threats of unrest.
One of the most visible signs of his legacy are the daily queues hoping for fuel at empty filling stations.
“I’m using the fuel which I bought from what we call black market – it’s three times the normal price at the pump,” said Lilongwe doctor Sam Kabota, packing away shopping bags full of goods – bar sugar.
Banda has made a good start, he said, but will be watched “more than closely”.
Few deny that Banda has a tough road ahead with a gross domestic product of $343 (MWK 56 705) a person and sharp dips in Malawi’s top earner, tobacco.
But hopes are high that Banda will be a more responsive leader than Mutharika who frequently butted heads with advice givers and critics.
“The economy is in a mess,” said Mwakasungula. “We need a very responsive government, but also listening leadership, to make sure that we get out of the problems that we are in.” – Sapa-AFP