Malawi’s Joyce Banda and the rise of women in African politics

Wednesday April 18 2012

Even before her ascent to the presidency of

Even before her ascent to the presidency of Malawi, Ms Joyce Banda, had been ranked by Forbes Magazine as the third powerful African woman, behind Liberia’s Ellen Sirleaf and Nigeria’s Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala  

By Ciugu Mwagiru

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.

Community organiser
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.

Banda’s enemies were not yet through with her. Soon there were increased calls, spearheaded by DPP’s spokesman Hetherwick Ntaba, for Banda to also resign as Malawi’s Vice-President, thereby leaving the coast clear for the elevation of Mutharika’s anointed kin. Ever the fighter, the battle-hardened Banda did not find that proposition palatable in the least, despite feeling the intense political heat directed at her.

Sticking to her guns and emboldened by rising popular support, the courageous lady adamantly refused to give up her job, and instead went to court. In doing so she and her wide base of supporters cited the provisions of the constitution, which recognised her as the de jure holder of the position, a stand supported by a ruling made in her favour.

That done and over with, and as if to give her detractors a dose of their own medicine, Ms Banda proceeded to form her own People’s Party, and soon emerged as one of Mutharika’s fiercest critics. Implacable to the end, she persistently lambasted the president’s management of the Malawian economy, the country at the time being beset by worsening fuel shortages, rising prices and high unemployment.

It was those daunting problems that resulted in the widespread anti-government protests, marked by rising demands for President Mutharika’s resignation, whose handling by the police provoked Banda’s reaction. As for the sitting president’s dreams of a family dynasty in Malawi, an unequivocal Banda summarily dismissed them, while unleashing a flurry of ripostes that have remained memorable to this day.

“The chronic disease of third term[s], or chieftaincy, remains one of the greatest enemies of our efforts to achieve sustainable development,” she is reported to have said before caustically adding in a backhander aimed at Mutharika: “The country is constantly caught [up] in a vicious circle of privatisation of the state where one or two people hold the fate of the country.”

Undeterred by the forces pitted against her, Ms Banda became increasingly vocal as her country rapidly descended to the doldrums. After the anti-government protests broke out in July 2011, for instance, police used live ammunition to quell them, and 19 people were shot dead in the northern cities of Karonga and Mzuzu. In the aftermath of the unrest, Malawi’s health ministry confirmed the deaths, and a livid Banda was quick to express her disgust. Pointing out that Malawi could face more unrest ahead of the planned 2014 polls, she was quick to sound the alarm.

“The road to 2014 will be rough, bumpy and tough,” she warned her compatriots. “Some will even sacrifice their own lives.”

Despite her rising tribulations at the hands of the political movers and shakers of the day, Ms Banda is reported to have remained widely popular in Malawi. That notwithstanding, her odyssey during the Mutharika government’s machinations against her ensured that up to the time of her predecessor’s death she remained fired from the ruling DPP. Constantly vilified, for close to two years she did not attend Cabinet meetings.

Humble upbringing
With her origins in Malemia, a village in southern Malawi, Banda was born on April 12, 1950 in Malawi’s colonial capital of Zomba, where her father was an accomplished and popular police brass band musician. She began her career as a secretary, and when still in her youth became a well-known figure during the dictatorial era of Kamuzu Banda - no relation to her own family.

Married and having three children by the age of 25, Ms Banda in her younger years fled to Nairobi to escape what she perceived as gender-based discrimination in her home country. She consequently became a fierce critic of the practice, and after abandoning an abusive marriage later returned to Malawi and settled down with her current husband Richard Banda, the country’s former Chief Justice.

Ms Banda ventured into formal politics in 1999, when nearly 50, during Malawi’s second democratic elections. Having won a parliamentary seat through the former ruling party of retired president Bakili Muluzi, Banda’s rise to the presidency has been speedy by all indications. Coming from humble beginnings, after some years working as a secretary, she had branched out into business.

Quickly making a mark as an entrepreneur, between 1985 and 1997 Banda managed and established various businesses and organizations, including Ndekani Garments (1985), Akajuwe Enterprises (1992) and Kalingidza Bakery (1995). In the meantime she was dedicated to community work and philanthropy, and was known as an avid community educator and grassroots gender rights activist.

Totally dedicated to her new calling, her success in business moved her to assist other women to achieve financial independence and break the cycles of abuse and poverty that characterized their lives. Providence seems to have steadily steered Ms Banda to her destiny as the leader of her people, and she did not allow her lowly educational background to hold her back.

Not endowed with impressive academic credentials, she initially only had a Cambridge School Certificate, although she pursued higher education later in life, eventually obtaining a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Early Childhood Education and a Diploma in Management. Having courageously fought toe-to-toe with her detractors while also pursuing further education and helping her people, today she has many national and international honours under her belt.

Malawi’s lady of steel cracks the whip as erstwhile detractors toe the line

Although according to the Malawian constitution Lady President Joyce Hilda Banda is serving in an acting capacity pending elections, she has hit the ground running, and is already making her authority felt in the landlocked central African country.

Beset by the many political, social and economic problems inherited from her predecessor, Ms Banda has been quick to lay the foundation for turning her troubled country around.

Having made it clear that she will not be vindictive or pursue revenge against those who blocked her route to the presidency, the new Malawian head of state has nonetheless pointed out the need to do some urgent housecleaning work. That task has inevitably involved getting rid of some of her former opponents inside Malawi’s political establishment, many of whom have been fervently seeking accommodation in Banda’s government..

With many of them identified as die-hard Mutharika loyalists, the die seems cast, however, and among the first ones to be sacked was one Patricia Kaliati. The ill-fated lady was the former Information Minister who publicly insisted that the late president Bingu wa Mutharika was alive more than one day after his death on Thursday, April 5, 2012.

Her being shown the door marked the rapid shake-up of the public service in Malawi that Ms Banda unveiled in her bid to purge the government of Mutharika loyalists. Particularly focusing on suspect characters formerly controlling government finances and media, the rapid purge also saw the sacking of a Mr. Bright Malopa, a Mutharika ally who formerly headed the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and was notorious for his determination to use state media to relentlessly campaign against Banda after her expulsion from the DPP.

Also sacked by Banda have been Mr. Perks Ligoya, the former governor of the Malawi Reserve Bank, and former police chief Peter Mukhito, both close allies of the late President Mutharika. While the former was earlier blamed for pursuing an allegedly rigid exchange rate policy that the International Monetary Fund has blamed for much of Malawi’s economic woes, the former police chief was implicated in acts of violence against Malawians, among them the alleged slaying of student activist Robert Chasowa.

While announcing some of the recent sackings, Ms Banda explained that urgent action needed to be taken to correct the mistakes of the past, while at the same time seeking justice for the victims of Mutharika’s intolerant regime.

“Although we are in mourning, certain decisions cannot wait,” President Banda reportedly told a news conference in the capital Lilongwe three days after taking office.

Displaying the warm motherly instinct for which she is known, she also launched an investigation into the mysterious murder of student activist Chasowa.

“As a mother, I feel for my fellow mother who doesn’t know what killed her son,” she said. “I understand how painful it is, and I will make sure we find out who killed our son Chasowa. We don’t want people to go about murdering people fearlessly.”

As for the gainers in Ms Banda’s reorganisation of the public service, they included Ms Mary Nkosi, who replaced Ligoya as Reserve Bank Governor, making her the first woman to hold the job after having served as a deputy governor for a long time.

Other gainers were Mr. Radson Mwadiwa, a career bureaucrat who was named the new secretary to the Treasury and chairman of the state-owned Malawi Savings Bank. Mr. Moses Kakuyu, a conscientious parliamentarian who pressed for reforms after breaking away from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party, became the new information minister, while the new director general of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation is Mr Benson Tembo, a veteran broadcaster and former diplomat whose last posting was as ambassador to Zimbabwe.

Amidst the numerous changes, observers of the Malawian political scene were quick to caution against over-optimism, with the Sunday Times reminding the populace that in the past they had faced previous ‘false dawns’. Referring to Mutharika’s record in office, the paper pointed out that the former president had been widely hailed for his sterling performance during his first term, but had slipped into retrogression during recent years as he cracked down on basic freedoms and sent the Malawian economy into a tail-spin.

“The country’s previous leaders all started with a lot of promise,” the paper said, “but the trappings of power corrupted them to such an extent that they forgot the source of their power and became gods who brooked no advice, let alone criticism, regardless of whether it is constructive or not.”

Such caution aside, President Joyce Hilda Banda for now seems set to herald a new dawn for her country, and she evidently has the credentials, will and ability to do so.