Motherly and resplendent in rich African colours, Joyce Hilda Banda came across as the perfect embodiment of African feminine grace when the international media focused on her swearing-in as Malawi’s fourth president on Saturday April 7, 2012, in Lilongwe, the country’s capital city.
Taking office as president following the sudden death of maverick President Bingu wa Mutharika on Thursday April 5, Ms Banda has made history as Malawi’s first female head of state. After having been her country’s first female vice-president, she has now also added more feathers to her hat by becoming the second female president in Africa in modern times, after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Although somewhat self-effacing, Banda had already made enough impact during her political and civic career to have been listed in Forbes Magazine in 2011 as the third most powerful woman in Africa, behind President Sirleaf and Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria’s Finance Minister.
Given Banda and Sirleaf’s shared status as Africa’s only two female presidents, it is not surprising that the latter was one of the first people to congratulate Banda and welcome her as the second woman leader in Africa. “This means I no longer will be lonely,” Sirleaf said during a recent interview. “The potential for more women leadership at the highest level is now being made even stronger.”
Soon after her swearing in, the Malawian and international media were profuse in hailing Ms Banda’s smooth inauguration as a triumph for democracy. Taking the lead, Malawi’s own Sunday Times stated in an editorial that the new president’s inauguration had “helped to entrench and cement a democratic culture in the country”.
The paper then described the event as ‘a breath of fresh air after the divisive and confrontational rhetoric that characterised presidential parlance over the last few years’, and hailed the orderly transition as welcome “on our African continent, where smooth transitions are rare”.
As for Ms Banda, she spoke in conciliatory tones during the inauguration ceremony, calling for unity and a rejection of revenge. That was despite the fact that her elevation had come only two days after the death of the increasingly controversial former president, Bingu wa Mutharika, who considered her a rival and had been openly and persistently adversarial towards her in both word and deed.
True to her reputation as a peacemaker, during her swearing in ceremony Ms Banda fervently appealed for national unity. “I want all of us to move into the future with hope and with the spirit of oneness and unity,” she told her compatriots. “I hope we shall stand united, and I hope that as a God-fearing nation we [shall] allow God to come before us, because if we don’t do that then we [shall] have failed.”
Ms Banda’s placid demeanour aside, her combative personal and political history indicates that the lady president’s serene motherly looks can be deceptive. Having just celebrated her 62nd birthday, which fell on Thursday April 12, she has a well-earned reputation as a hard nut to crack when it comes to politics.
It was indeed not surprising that, having been the late Mutharika’s running mate when she stood as the vice-presidential candidate of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the May 2009 presidential election, Banda easily won. It was her performance at the polls that saw her serving as Malawi’s first female vice-president, a position she occupied between May 29, 2009, and the day she was sworn in as the Malawi’s acting head of state.
Before serving as the vice-president, Ms Banda had been her country’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, occupying the important docket from June 1, 2006 to May 29, 2009. Earlier, she was a Member of Parliament for the Zomba-Malosa constituency, and soon became Minister of Gender, Child Welfare and Community Services, before being appointed to the foreign affairs ministry by President Bingu wa Mutharika on June 1, 2006.
Prior to her active career in politics, Ms Banda dedicated a lot of her time to working with the community, taking particular interest in the well-being of women and children in Malawi. It was during that period that she founded the Joyce Banda Foundation, the National Association of Business Women (NABW), the Young Women Leaders Network and the internationally lauded Hunger Project.
While Banda’s history-making ascent to the vice-presidency was hailed by many Malawians, before long her victory was to prove pyrrhic. As fate would have it, just a year after their election victory President Mutharika and his vice-president and erstwhile running mate had a spectacular political fall-out. The fierce political battle that ensued and persisted until Mutharika’s death was fuelled by vicious succession manoeuvres.
The unexpected moves to definitively ostracise Banda were articulated by President Mutharika and his cohorts in the ruling DPP, with the all-out bid to sideline Banda aimed at finally creating a family dynasty in Malawi. As things turned out, Mutharika’s intentions in elbowing Banda aside were to groom his younger brother Peter, then serving in his cabinet as the foreign minister – the position earlier held by current president Banda - to become the DPP candidate for the next polls slated to take place in 2014.
To get Banda safely out of the way well before the end of Mutharika’s second and constitutionally final term, the late president and his co-conspirators first expelled the hapless VP from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party. The ouster came in a surprise move by the DPP on 12 December 2010, and also saw the expulsion of the party’s second vice president Khumbo Kachali, a Banda ally. Accused of undefined ‘anti-party’ activities, the two were consequently left party-less and for a while remained in the political cold, even as the intrigues against the prospective future president were intensified.