Joyce Banda has been formally sworn in as the President of Malawi. What can she bring to an unsteady table?
Her ascent to the top job follows the death of Bingu wa Mutharika on 5 April after the president suffered a heart attack. As the vice-president – and in line with normal democratic procedure – Banda stepped up and assumed the presidential office.
However, there have been a few calls for the new woman to step down from politics, abandon the People’s Party she founded in 2011 and call fresh elections. Wa Mutharika’s chosen successor (his brother Peter) has been sidelined. The (just replaced) Minister of Information, Patricia Kiliati, has claimed that the 61-year-old Banda is ‘incapable of running the country’. And there are many MPs who were close to wa Mutharika and may not stand back so willingly as Banda moves behind the leader’s desk.
Banda has dealt with many of the old guard already by clearing them out and forming her own, refreshed cabinet. This is always a tricky game to play and she has kept in a few wa Mutharika ministers. (But you could argue that they got to stay on only because they had questioned the late president’s economic mismanagement.)
But Malawi has bigger fish to fry than the search for a perfect ministerial mix. There has been a worrying economic mirroring of neighbouring Zimbabwe, with the healthy agricultural policies and surpluses of a few years ago turning into hyperinflation and fuel and food shortages. Homosexuality is illegal and sexual discrimination laws, which are coming into force on the other side of the continent in Angola, are far from appearing in Malawi. The country receives an average of £93m annually in aid from London, which goes some way towards trying to combat the high rates of maternal mortality and the fact that 12% of the working-age population is HIV-positive.
To his credit, Bingu wa Mutharika did seem spend much of his first term in office, from 2004-2008, trying to sort out the national nourishment situation and using government subsidies wisely to feed more of the poorer Malawians. But sadly, in recent years, the good governance of the mid-2000s had been eroded by wa Mutharika himself. Some of his comments and methods of running the nation edged on dictatorial, others have been plain odd. He threw out the British High Commissioner for criticising him and tried unsuccessfully to get parliament to amend the constitution to allow him to emulate his “brother” next-door, Robert Mugabe, and continue as president indefinitely. He moved out of the presidential palace in 2005 because he felt it was haunted by invisible animals and summoned exorcists to cleanse the building.
With Joyce Banda taking over in the hot-seat in Lilongwe, the lake-side nation has become the first country in the region to have a female president. This is welcome progress and there has been warm encouragement from the global community for her to seize this opportunity to drive Malawi forward. She has been an ardent defender of women’s rights and is a powerful voice for her country. The death of the president is unfortunate but does provide a chance for the small nation to focus efforts once more on development and important domestic issues such as advancements in education, health and governance. Exorcisms can wait for now.