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Woman On Top: Malawi’s New Era

NEWS AND ANALYSIS

Woman On Top: Malawi’s New Era

Following the death on 5 April of President Bingu wa Mutharika, Africa now has its second, and Malawi’s first female president – Joyce Hilda Banda. For several months, leading to his demise, Malawi was gripped by growing public discontent over Mutharika’s rule. Expectations for the new president to start delivering are high, but she already seems to be heeding the call.

 

It may seem naïve for anyone to think that Malawi’s new president Joyce Banda will solve the problems she has inherited from the late president Bingu wa Mutharika in the next two years leading up to the 2014 general elections. But this is what many Malawians are expecting of her.

“She has no room for failure, everyone, including her opponents who didn’t want her to take over, is keen to see what she will do. All eyes, from both the elites and ordinary Malawians, are on her to start delivering on the failed political and economic promises [and] pretty immediately,” says one diplomatic source.

After days of speculation and amid media reports of a power struggle ensuing within the tiny African state’s ruling elite, Banda, hitherto the country’s vice president, was finally sworn in on 7 April as Mutharika’s constitutionally required successor. A staunch women’s rights advocate, she becomes Malawi’s first female president and the second in Africa, the other being Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

There had been reports that the late president had been grooming his young brother Peter to take over from him and that the Banda succession was strongly opposed. Mutharika expelled Banda from his ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP) for insubordination when she refused to endorse his brother Peter Mutharika as the ruling party’s candidate for the 2014 presidential elections.

Mutharika then excluded Banda from working in his government and she set up her own People’s Party (PP) in September 2011. However, she remained vice president, as it was an elected and constitutional office.

With the passing of Mutharika, it seems all is now water under the bridge as Malawians, while in mourning, also celebrated the historic moment of having a woman leader, whom they seem to be fondly embracing. Critical observers, however, say it is early days and the new leader has a lot to prove and a mountain to climb.

But Banda seems to understand the people’s high expectations of her and within a week of taking office, she began cracking her whip and sweeping the old house clean.

So far, she has speedily fired some very high-profile ministers from Mutharika’s government, and promised to re-normalise relations with the country’s international donor community, which had fallen apart under Mutharika and led to the loss of over $300m in donor funding, and a downward spiral in the country’s already low standard of living. It is largely due to the worsening economic conditions (despite the fact that Malawi has always been considered one of the poorest countries in Africa) that, unsurprisingly, there were elements of celebration when Mutharika’s death was announced.

Indeed, inevitably Banda has inherited a country at its most challenging time: chronic shortages of fuel, foreign exchange, electricity and drugs in the hospitals, as well as the high cost of basic living commodities, are just a few hurdles on the long list that Banda has to give immediate attention to. With a discontented population which is largely not so savvy about the economics behind, for example, the unpopular 16.5% Value Added Tax on staple products such as bread, meat and milk introduced by the Mutharika government in June 2011, how Banda deals with these sensitive issues is being keenly watched.

But she is acting quickly and Malawians (most of whom believe the foreign donor relations and aid freeze are to blame for their escalated economic woes) are optimistic that her administration will bear positive results. “I want all of us to move into the future with hope and a spirit of unity,” she said at her inauguration.

Just days into her role in the hot seat, she told reporters that Malawi and Britain (the country’s colonial power and its largest aid donor) would be mending their diplomatic relations, which have been at their lowest since last year when Mutharika ordered the expulsion of the British High Commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, who in a leaked diplomatic telegram, had accused the late president of  “increasingly becoming dictatorial”. The furore came amid accusations that he was failing to respect human rights, including the controversial homosexual rights, as well as reducing press freedom. The tensions heightened further following the death of 20 protesters last July when police crushed anti-government demonstrators. From then on Mutharika’s popularity went downhill to the day of his death.

Unsurprisingly then, one of the first victims of the Banda whip was the unpopular chief of police, Peter Mukhito, who ordered the police crackdown on the protesters.

Another high-profile sacking was that of Patricia Kaliati, the information minister and staunch Mutharika supporter, who even after the death of Mutharika, went on TV to try to block Banda from succeeding the late president.

Mending broken relationships internationally is a task the new leader is prioritising and progress with the country’s largest foreign donor is encouraging:

“The minister for Africa in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Henry Bellingham, indicated to me that the British government’s commitment to send a new British High Commissioner to Malawi is real and it will happen within the shortest period of time as part of the restoration of the cordial relations between our two countries,” the president told reporters in Lilongwe.

Another achievement is that President Banda has also mended Malawi’s souring relations with its neighbour Zambia.

Bad blood between Mutharika’s government and the current Zambian president Michael Sata began in 2007 when Mutharika deported Sata (then an opposition leader) and declared him an “unwanted person” in Malawi, after he had visited Malawi to see fellow opposition leader and Mutharika opponent, former Malawian president Bakili Muluzi. Sata was accused of being part of the alleged Muluzi’s plot to unseat president Mutharika. Since his election as Zambian president Sata has been refusing to visit Malawi.

“I spoke to President Sata of Zambia. We both committed ourselves to restoring the cordial diplomatic relations between our two governments. It is important for us to improve and strengthen relations between our countries, knowing how critical Zambia is to Malawi as a neighbour,” Banda said.

Muluzi, who was a strong opponent  to Mutharika’s rule, has also already  begun to sing Joyce Banda’s praises, expressing optimism that she will meet the people’s expectations.

“The last three years have been very difficult. I do drive to my village seeing the queues of cars and people looking for petrol, diesel, paraffin, as a result of [the increase in] prices of our commodities. We need to address issues of the economy first so that people can breathe some air. These are things the government should look into and I am optimistic that they can be addressed.”

 Born in 1950, the new Malawian leader is a known women’s rights activist and her work in that field has won her international awards and acclaim. In 2011, Forbes magazine named her Africa’s third most powerful female politician after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Nigerian Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. The mother of three holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Early Childhood Education from America’s Columbus University, and is married to retired chief justice Richard Banda.

Said to be a woman of integrity and passionate for the betterment of others, the world will truly be watching if she brings back the true meaning of the Malawian motto – “Warm Heart of Africa” – and cements it in the lives of her expectant populace. 

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