Two years ago Malawi’s new president, Joyce Banda, survived a freak accident — she was returning from the airport when a truck seemingly came out of nowhere and crashed into her car. Police did not investigate the accident and the driver of the truck was not arrested.
Subsequent inquiries established that the truck belonged to a senior member of the ruling party.
When she questioned the conduct of the police, the government reduced her security detail and took away her official vehicles. Funding for her office was also cut by more than 30%, apparently in a bid to frustrate her staff.
This did not stop her. She became Southern Africa’s first female head of state last Saturday, raising hopes for a fresh start for the country after the death of her mercurial predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, who died of a heart attack.
Decisive on her first day
On her first day in office on Tuesday this week, Banda sacked the information minister, Patricia Kaliati, a leading Mutharika loyalist and one of the senior leaders who tried to block her accession to the top job last week. Banda also fired the police chief, Peter Mukhito, who civil society groups believe was responsible for an unprecedented attack by police on anti-government protesters in July last year that left 20 dead.
She also fired the chief executive of the Malawi Broadcasting Services, Bright Malopa, and the secretary to the treasury, Joseph Mwanamvekha.
“I wish to indicate to you that I have made some immediate administrative changes that were deemed necessary and these are changes in the police, the ministry of information and Malawi Broadcasting Services,” Banda told a news conference earlier in the week.
Banda, a police officer’s daughter, served as a senior minister in former president Bakili Muluzi’s Cabinet and later in Mutharika’s. In 2009 she was appointed vice-president after helping to get Mutharika re-elected.
JB, as she is fondly known, left her abusive first husband to start a successful company and founded the National Association of Business Women, which today assists 20 000 women. She also created the Joyce Banda Foundation, an elite school that gives children, mostly orphan girls, the chance of an education in a country where only 27% of girls have access to schools.
In 2010 Banda was kicked out of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party and Mutharika began grooming his brother, Peter, Malawi’s foreign minister, as his replacement.
She created her own People’s Party and kept her position as vice-president because only Parliament, and not the president, could dismiss her.
As the new president she has to deal with a stuttering economy caused by Mutharika’s economic policies and his heavy-handed repression of dissent, which led to the United Kingdom and others to suspend support worth about 40% of the budget. She has to bring the International Monetary Fund programme back on track and restore diplomatic relations with the UK, as well as the confidence of the donor community. Banda said she was in talks with the United States to resume its suspended $350-million energy grant and had spoken to secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
Those close to her believe that her experiences have prepared her for the tough challenges she now faces.
“Whatever she has gone through has prepared her for this — She is ready to work, she never gives up,” said a long-time friend and fellow activist, Joyce Ngoma. “She is a go-getter and, when she sets her eyes on something, she never fails.”