Most followers of Malawian politics would agree that Joyce Banda is an enigma.
President of Malawi since April, she pinned down a place in April on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People in the World. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same woman who was a political nobody a few years ago in the Southeastern African country.
Three years ago, her political career was tottering. Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s president at the time, was targeting obstacles (and Vice President Banda was one) in the way of his brother and presidential hopeful, Peter Mutharika.
First, Banda was fired as one of the two vice presidents of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. Following the failure of a further attempt to expel her, the strategy swung from prosecution to frustration, from hounding her to silencing and confining her to political obscurity.
Few people would have survived the humiliation the president hurled at her. Few presidents, too, would have been as devious. In 2010, Mutharika married Callista Chapola-Chimombo, who had worked for Banda’s Hunger Project, then appointed his wife to positions previously held by Banda.
Chapola-Chimombo displaced Banda as African Union Goodwill Ambassador for Safe Motherhood and as coordinator of the country’s national anti-malaria program. But a tenacious Banda did not give up; she watched as her former subordinate undermined her office.
The following year, Mutharika shifted tactics, announcing a cabinet reshuffle that had no provision for the office of vice president. If I can’t sack you, I won’t recognize you was the message to his deputy. Banda responded by founding the People’s Party.
The People’s Party was hardly a year old when Mutharika died.
Banda fought and eventually won the battle of her life to outfox top-government shenanigans against her natural and constitutional succession to president. On April 7, 2012 when she was sworn in, Africa had its second female president and Malawi had its first.
The country that was handed over to her was anything but the Malawi of her dreams. Bingu wa Mutharika had a heart-warming beginning, particularly with his Agricultural Input Subsidy Program that benefited an estimated 1.7 million poor Malawian farmers in addition to about-facing the country’s food production and export fortunes.
For the first six years of his presidency, Malawi was rated one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, averaging seven-percent growth each year and becoming a food exporter. Its low crime rate also earned Malawi a pleasant reputation as one of the safest countries in the world.
Within the same period, as Malawi’s gross domestic product grew, the population living under the poverty line decreased from 54 percent in 1990 to 40 percent in 2006. The ultra-poor decreased from 24 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2007.
Soon, an unmistakable arrogance began creeping in. Mutharika styled himself Malawi’s economist-in-chief. Foreign donors whose money funded an agriculture program opposed the killing of defenseless civilians protesting Mutharika’s plans to lengthen his stay in office.
He expelled the British envoy to Malawi and was slammed with retaliatory measures including frozen aid worth $550 million. In solidarity with Britain, the U.S. nixed a $350 million refurbishment of the country’s rundown power grid.
The remnants were Banda’s inheritance. In 2012, the country had lost 40 percent of its budget and was grappling with sinking international demand for its tobacco, which accounted for 60 percent to 80 percent of its earnings. Malawi also faced acute power and fuel shortages and an over-valued currency. The kwacha was set at 165 to the dollar but was trading at nearly double that on the black market. Other problems included rampant inflation and large-scale degradation of social infrastructures.
Banda swung into action, first firing Mutharika’s allies, Information Minister Patricia Kaliati and Inspector General of Police Peter Mukhito. She reopened talks with international donors over the restoration of aid worth $1 billion and reshaped the local view of her office, shearing the trappings of power by cutting her own salary and selling off some presidential jets and limousines. She restored citizens’ freedom of expression and steered clear of the customary suppression of opposition political parties.
“President Banda possesses the traits needed during this period of great challenges in Malawi’s, and Africa’s, history,” said Liberian President Ellen Joghson Sirleaf, the only other female president on the continent. Sirleaf commended Banda for establishing nongovernmental and charitable foundations before her active career in politics began, all geared toward improving the lives of women.
“Today Joyce and I have a collaborative program that focuses on improving the working conditions of market women,” Sirleaf said. “President Banda is committed to using her position to improve the lives of women across the continent, not just in Malawi. She has great strength. I am delighted that I’m not alone in Africa anymore.”
Journalist Dan Nyirenda said, “It has been a happier place since Joyce Banda took over as president. We can assemble without the police interfering and we can criticize the government again.”
John Makina, leader of civil society group Oxfam Malawi, said he believes Banda’s tenure has curtailed corruption and generally holds hope for the future. “The government is functioning better. Civil society is robust. Corruption is…mostly small scale by regional standards. Costly subsidies for fertilizer have kept farmers happy and most Malawian stomachs are full enough. On the whole, Mrs. Banda still wins.”
But many would disagree with Makina. Banda’s pandering to the yearning of the International Monetary Fund to have the kwacha devalued by 40 percent spawned inflation, leading to protests in January during which civil servants demanded 65 percent wage increases to handle massive price hikes.
Political commentator Chisomo Phiri said he believes the former foreign affairs minister deserves no more time in office and should be impeached for continuing “to haunt the lives of innocent, poor Malawians with unbearably ever-increasing fuel prices, depleted (corn) reserves, exorbitant price of the scarce (corn), lack of medicines in hospitals, corrupt activities and abuse of office.”
The next Malawian general elections will be in 2014.