Malawi's Banda becomes Africa's third female head of state

Vice President Joyce Banda took over as Malawi's president on Saturday. Her first challenge: restoring relations with donor nations to the poverty stricken nation. 

Mabvuto Banda/Reuters
Malawi's vice president Joyce Banda addresses the media after taking power following the death of Malawi's president Bingu wa Mutharika.

Following the death of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, Africa now has two female heads of state. On Satuday, Malawi’s government announced the death of President Mutharika, the former World Bank economist, and the succession of his vice president, Joyce Banda. Sworn in on Saturday evening, Ms. Banda is the third-ever female African head of state, after Ethiopian Empress Zewditu and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Ms. Banda’s succession was shaky. The announcement of Mutharika’s death was delayed nearly two days, and some ministers had claimed that Banda was ineligible for the job, since she left the ruling Democratic Progressive Party after a dispute with Mutharika.

In an announcement from her home in Lilongwe, Banda ordered a 10-day period of mourning for Mutharika.

"I call upon all Malawians to remain calm and to keep the peace during this time of bereavement," Banda said at a press conference, where members of the cabine and the heads of the Army and the police were present.

The relatively smooth transition of power, thus far, comes as a relief to Malawians and to the country’s southern African neighbors. Just nine months ago, thousands of Malawians took to the streets to protest high food and fuel prices in demonstrations that appeared to be inspired in part by the Arab uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. In response, Mutharika launched a crackdown, with at least 20 demonstrators killed. In a press conference, Mutharika blamed Banda for the protests and was unapologetic for his strong-arm methods.

“Even God knows that I have been the most patient president on the continent,” Mutharika said at a police commissioning ceremony, after the mid-July 2011 protests. “Enough is enough. You wanted to take government by force, which is against the laws of the land. This time I will follow you into your homes. I will smoke you out.”

Malawi is one of the poorest countries of the world, with more than 75 percent of the population earning less than $1 a day. Many Malawians initially welcomed Mutharika as an “economist in chief” because of his experience as a World Bank economist. But as president, Mutharika had frequent disagreements with both the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund over his government’s decision to continue subsidies to farmers for fertilizer.

Mutharika also had problems with individual donor nations, including Malawi’s former colonial ruler, Britain. Last year, Mutharika expelled Britain’s high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, after a leaked diplomatic cable quoted the British envoy as describing Mutharika to be “ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism." In response, Britain froze further development aid to Malawi.

As president, Banda comes in as something of an unknown quantity, but she does not lack spunk. A women’s rights activist and former parliamentarian taken on as Mutharika’s vice presidential candidate in 2009, Banda was informed months later that Mutharika intended to have his brother Peter take over as presidential candidate in the 2014 elections. Banda objected, left the ruling DPP, and former her own opposition People’s Party. Mutharika attempted to have her removed as vice president, but under Malawi’s Constitution, it is the parliament and not the president who can remove a vice president. Relations between Mutharika and Banda had remained tense ever since.

It will take more than spunk to solve Malawi’s economic crisis, however. Financial mismanagement, government incompetence, and unpredictable rainfall have increased Malawi’s debt to crushing levels. By 2005, some 30 percent of the agricultural country’s national budget went to servicing its $2.9 billion debt. Much of that, about $2.3 billion, was forgiven by the IMF and World Bank, but Malawi’s economic isolation under Mutharika pushed the country back into an economic hole. Banda’s challenge will be to restore international relations without sacrificing Malawi’s ability to direct its own economic affairs.

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