Malawi once again captured the attention of the world this weekend, not for its poverty or a pop star’s child adoption, but for its progress. On Saturday, April 7, 2012, Joyce Banda was sworn as the Republic of Malawi’s first female president and Africa’s second. The longtime women’s rights activist and outspoken politician, listed as Forbes’ third most powerful woman in Africa in 2011 assumed one of its highest offices.
“I want to sincerely thank Malawians and all people living in Malawi for the respect of the law shown by the peaceful transition of the presidency,” President Banda announced before nation whose constitution she pledged to defend and preserve.
Taking over after the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika will not prove an easy task for Banda who made many enemies in the late president’s Democratic Progressive Party as his Vice President. Shortly following the 2009 re-election, Mutharika and Banda clashed over Mutharika’s policies and style of governance. Within a year Banda was kicked out of the majority party, but she skillfully evaded political isolation and defiantly retained the title of Malawian Vice President creating her own political party, the People’s Party.
Mutharika’s disdain for Banda, who openly criticized his presidency likening him to an autocrat, was widely known. His preference for his brother to succeed him over Banda was a personal but non-constitutional choice, as Banda remained the nation’s Vice President. In the wake of President Mutharika’s passing, many whispered of a power vacuum struggle between the two while others speculated that the former head of state’s body was transported to South Africa in an attempt to buy time was chosen. Nevertheless the power struggle many envisioned did not come to fruition and the rule of Malawian law had prevailed for it to make history. For those who blame Mutharika for the country’s current economic crisis, President Banda represents great hope for change.
A former World Bank economist, the late President Mutharika was once the darling of the international community yet he began to question Malawi’s heavy dependency on foreign aid clashing with donors and lenders during his second term of office. The worse Malawi’s economic situation became the more Mutharika resisted the recommendations of international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As the Malawian economy entered into a tailspin, Mutharika ignored the IMF’s advice to devalue its currency despite severe shortages of vital commodities such as sugar and fuel.
Fixing Malawi’s flailing economy presents a great challenge for President Banda, one that her critics question her ability to face. But as questions of her ability to pull Malawi out of financial crisis and powerful enemies loyal to Mutharika threaten to mar her historical presidency, it is important to note that Banda may have already endured the greatest fight of her life.
The 62-year-old Joyce Banda we know today: staunch women’s rights advocate, educator, philanthropist, politician, and president represents the evolution of a 25 year old mother who escaped an abusive marriage.
Living in a violent household in Nairobi, Kenya far from her native homeland, a courageous President Banda drew strength and inspiration from the 1970s’ Kenyan women’s movement to leave her husband with three young children in tow. Once safe in Malawi, Banda gained financial independence as a garment manufacturer. Using her personal knowledge and experience to advocate for the economic freedom of other Malawian women, Banda founded the National Business Women Association.
Just as President Banda rebuilt her financial future as a young single parent and survivor of domestic violence, she is now charged to do the same for her country.
Jamila Aisha Brown is a freelance writer, political commentator, and social entrepreneur. Her entrepreneurship, HUE, provides consulting solutions for development projects throughout the African diaspora. You can follow her on Twitter and engage with HUE, LLC.