Presidential Jet for Sale

The welcoming parting receiving President Joyce Banda in Lilongwe as she deplaned a commercial flight from Johannesburg in October.

Good news for corporate executives looking for a bargain on a 1998 Dassault Falcon 900EX. You can have former Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika’s for just $13.3 million.

When Joyce Banda came to power in April after Bingu’s death, international observers were thrilled to learn that Africa’s second female president planned to be a frugalista. Banda told the Nyasa Times a few weeks after coming to power that she was open to selling the plane. Memorably, the former businesswoman and activist quipped: “I am already used to hitchhiking.” 

When Bingu bought the plane five years ago for $22.4 million, he told concerned observers and voters that it would be “cheap to run.”  Cheap came to about $300,000 a year–a huge sum in a country where the per capita income tops out at about $900 per annum. Britain punished Malawi for Bingu’s excesses by cutting aid by $4.4 million. The international community took the splurge as a telltale sign that the former World Bank economist was loosening his tether to the reality of the everyday in Malawi.

While the sale is a sign of good faith on Banda’s part, it’s hard to imagine that the revenue will make a dent in state finances. Malawi has a budget for 2012-2013 of $1.6 billion, most of which is financed by donations. $13.3 million is just a small slice of that pie. The president still incurs her fair share of costs, sparking the wrath of protesters a few weeks ago in the streets of Blantyre and Mzuzu. She does travel commercially, and has since she took office. I can vouch for this because Banda and her entourage filled the first class section of the plane on my October flight from Johannesburg. The fleet of luxury cars remains, as does the public upset when she sends them across the country ahead of her, flying over the line of black Mercedes to make up the time.

Perhaps this disconnect between the governing and the governed is inevitable in a place like Malawi where the minimum wage is now less than a dollar a day, much of the agrarian nation is hard-hit by drought, and the average Malawian will never dream of flying on a commercial jet, much less a private one. At the very least, for now, its refreshing to see a leader here come good on her promise. 


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