LILONGWE. — A champion of women’s rights, Joyce Hilda Banda has become the first female head of state in southern Africa after taking over as Malawi’s president following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika who died of a heart attack last Thursday. A mother of three, Banda who was Malawi’s vice president assumed the top job on Saturday under the terms
of Malawi’s constitution.
The 61-year-old was sworn in smoothly on Saturday just hours after officials confirmed the death two days earlier of president Bingu wa Mutharika.
“This has helped to entrench and cement a democratic culture in the country and is a fresh breath of air on our African continent, where smooth transitions are rare,” said the country’s Sunday Times.
“Malawi, with a young history of 18 years of democracy, joins African countries such as neighbour Zambia and Senegal in West Africa who have recently had peaceful, orderly and smooth transitions.”
Banda has been hailed for offering an olive branch to Mutharika’s backers, saying there was no room for revenge, after two days of political uncertainty in which the former leader’s inner circle allegedly tried to block her assuming the post.
“We can now all look back with pride and optimism at what we have achieved as a nation in the last few days and focus on the huge task of healing and rectifying the undeniable mess that our nation finds itself in,” said the Nation yesterday.
Human Rights Consultative Committee chairman Undule Mwakasungula, a critic of the late president’s leadership, said Banda’s swearing in as per the country’s constitution reflected the maturity of Malawi’s democracy.
“It’s important that she brings rapid political and economic reforms,” he told AFP.
A winner of national and international awards for her work as a supporter of women’s rights, Banda was last year named by Forbes Magazine as Africa’s third most powerful female politician after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Nigerian Minister of Finance Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.
She will hope her influence stands her in good stead as she looks to rebuild ties with Malawi’s main foreign donors — including former colonial power Britain and the United States.
Until now the policeman’s daughter has spent a lot of her time and energy campaigning on behalf poor rural African women, trying to persuade them that they should not simply accept the existence they have inherited.
She has said her ambition is to set women on the world’s least developed continent free from the cycle of poverty and abuse that has haunted them for centuries.
In an interview late last year, she cited the case of a childhood friend in her ancestral village as one reason she has kept on campaigning.
She said her friend, much brighter than herself, was forced to leave high school after just one term because her family couldn’t afford the US$12 needed for the school fees.
“I went on to go to college and I became the vice president of Malawi. She is still where she was 30 years ago,” Banda said in the interview with the Global Post.
“The vicious cycle of poverty kept her there and took away her options. I made up my mind at that point, whatever would happen in my life, I would try to send girls to schools.”
This personal pledge was behind Banda’s decision to complete a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Early Childhood Education from Columbus University in the United States.
Setting up a garment manufacturing business and later a bakery, she said she used the proceeds to send under-privileged girls to school.
She also founded three major organisations in Malawi: the National Association of Business Women, the Young Women’s Leaders Network, and the Joyce Banda Foundation.
“We know that early marriage, early pregnancy, and early death of young women in childbirth are connected to how long they stay in school,” she says.
The campaigning for women’s rights did not stop when she joined the government in 2004. As Minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services she fought to get a domestic violence bill enacted.
She became Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2006 and the country’s first female vice president in 2009.
A year later Banda was kicked out of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as Mutharika pushed to groom his brother Peter, Malawi’s foreign minister, as his replacement.
Creating her own People’s Party, Banda maintained her state position as vice president. She is married to Richard Banda, a former chief justice of Malawi and Swaziland.
Banda’s presidency seems set to usher in a fresh opportunity for Malawi, and many will be hoping that under her leadership the small southern African state can reclaim its tourist brochure reputation as “The Warm Heart of Africa”. — Reuters/AFP.