By the standards of most African leaders, President Joyce Banda is a renegade.
Since taking office less than four months ago, she has threatened to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, indicted for war crimes, if he tries to enter her country. She has suggested that Malawi repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality, at a time when many other African countries are moving to strengthen theirs. And in a part of the world where repression of journalists is widespread, she has ushered in media freedoms.
“For me, Malawi comes first,” said Banda, 62, the country’s first female president and Africa’s second, after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
On a continent where many leaders cling to power, driven by ego and ill-gotten wealth, Western diplomats and aid workers are hailing Banda as a new kind of African leader. When she was sworn into office on April 7, after President Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack, few expected her to pull her troubled Southern African nation from the brink of an economic meltdown. But today, she is doing just that — and more.
“The message she sends is that principled leadership for the benefit of the people is the right thing to do,” said Jeanine E. Jackson, the U.S. ambassador to Malawi. “She cares about the people, while a lot of African leaders are more caring about themselves.”
The case of the presidential jet, many say, is evidence. Mutharika bought the $12 million aircraft, earning the wrath of international donors who considered it a wasteful use of funds. Banda instantly decided to sell it, along with most of the government’s fleet of 60 luxury cars, preferring to use the money to help her nation, one of the poorest in the world with an estimated three-quarters of its 15 million people living on less than $1 a day.
“The jet has to go,” she said. “It is expensive even just parked.”
Her critics charge that she is a lackey of the United States and other international donors, that she is determined to implement Western economic prescriptions, even if they cause additional hardships for the population. Banda denies the allegations, arguing that she could have pushed through more painful reforms if she wanted to appease donors.
The main question many here ask is this: Will Banda remain committed to her reformist path or will she transform into yet another African autocrat?
They remember how their previous leaders, including Mutharika, started off enacting reforms, only to lead their country into ruin. They remember how in the 1990s, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni were lauded by Western powers as the continent’s greatest hopes. All three have used repression and electoral abuse to prolong their authoritarian rule.
“In Africa, governments, especially leaders, start very well, but later on when power corrupts, things change,” said Pius Mtike, a Malawian journalist. “As of now, we can say that we are able to operate freely, and we can only hope this will continue.”
The Malawi that Banda inherited was an economic basket case, punctured by massive fuel and electricity shortages. Businesses were shutting down; investors were fleeing. Last July, anti-government demonstrators took to the streets, protesting the fuel crisis, rising prices for food and fuel, and high unemployment, triggering a fierce police crackdown.
Mutharika, who was elected in 2004, enacted economic reforms and anti-corruption measures during his first term, and he was widely seen as a political success. But by his second term, he had become more authoritarian, cracking down on anyone who posed a threat to his rule. A leaked 2011 diplomatic cable from the British Embassy, published in a local newspaper, described Mutharika as “becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism.”
He promptly expelled the British High Commissioner. Britain, Malawi’s former colonial ruler and its largest donor, suspended hundreds of millions of dollars in aid indefinitely, and other international donors, fed up with Mutharika’s autocratic tendencies and poor governance, followed suit.
Unlike Mutharika, an economist known for his lavish lifestyle, Banda hates staying at luxury hotels and usually travels with a small entourage. She only recently moved into the presidential palace, after her supporters insisted that it would send a signal that a female president was equal to a male one.
Banda was born in a village near Zomba, a city in southern Malawi. Her father was a musician in the police band. Much of his salary went to pay school fees for Banda and her four siblings.
After attending a secretarial college, she married a Malawian diplomat at age 22. By 26, she had three children and was living in Kenya, where her husband was posted. An alcoholic, he would physically abuse her, often publicly, she said. The marriage ended in divorce.
“My greatest weakness was that I had not empowered myself,” said Banda, a short, bespectacled woman, who is as down-to-earth as she is determined.
So she took courses in business, economics and public speaking. In the early 1980s, she started a clothing manufacturing company and other business ventures. By then, she had married Richard Banda, who would become the country’s chief justice.
The following decade, she launched the National Association of Businesswomen of Malawi, which provides training and micro-finance loans to female entrepreneurs. In 1999, she entered politics and became a member of parliament in 2004.
As cabinet minister for gender and community affairs, Banda championed a domestic violence bill, which failed to pass for seven years. Later she became Malawi’s foreign minister. In 2009, Mutharika tapped her to become his vice presidential running mate.
But after he was reelected, Mutharika soon marginalized her. He denied her a cabinet position, took away her security and expelled her from his political party in an effort to ensure that his brother would inherit the presidency.
Banda remained vice president but created her own party, setting her sights on the 2014 presidential election, even as she earned a bachelor’s degree in gender studies from an online university based in Hawaii, then studied for a master’s in leadership in Canada.
In the hours after Mutharika’s death, several cabinet ministers tried to strip her of her constitutional right to take over as president. But the country’s top general backed her, and after a tense period, Banda was sworn in.
“They failed miserably to separate me from Malawians,” she said with a faint smile.
Banda’s first step was to devalue Malawi’s currency, raise tariffs and put in place a painful austerity program. She sacked incapable officials and pushed parliament to repeal laws that censored the media and gave police unrestrained powers.
Her decision to ban Bashir from attending an African Union summit in Malawi was intended to appease Western donors, she said candidly. But it angered many African leaders, who have shown solidarity toward Bashir. The African Union, at the request of Sudan, transferred the summit to Ethiopia.
But this and other actions have persuaded once-wary international donors to rethink their assistance to Malawi. The World Bank recently approved $150 million to support Banda’s reforms.
Last year, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. foreign aid agency, suspended a $355 million grant to build up Malawi’s energy sector because of the Mutharika government’s “undemocratic pattern of actions.” The grant was reinstated this month on grounds that Banda had taken steps to place Malawi on the right path, economically and politically.
“She’s very genuine and truly committed,” said Daniel Yohannes, the MCC’s chief executive. “I didn’t expect these changes to happen within 90 days of taking office.”
Today, journalists are publishing accountability stories without fear, including one demanding that Banda reveal her assets. Some foreign firms are interested again in investing in Malawi, a step that Banda hopes will move the nation to one day rely more on trade than aid. The fuel shortages have vanished.
“We never expected a woman to accomplish this much,” said Gift Gugulele, a taxi driver who used to wait a week in long gas station lines for fuel.
Still, pressure is mounting on Banda. Opposition politicians are attacking her challenge of laws against homosexuality in an attempt to weaken her popularity before the next elections. Her economic plans are hurting average Malawians, who have seen prices soar.
“There’s a revival of hope that things are going to improve,” said Kingdom Kwapata, a youth activist. “So a lot of Malawians are currently patient, but we don’t know how long this patience will last.”