Joyce Banda, Malawi’s new president, is off to a great start. I cheered when she assumed the top job in early April after her predecessor, President Bingu wa Mutharika, unfortunately dropped dead from a heart attack. Banda had been expelled from Mutharika’s party in 2010 after clashing with him over his efforts to position his brother as his political heir, but she stayed on as vice president. Some of Mutharika’s loyalists tried to block her from taking office on the weak grounds that she wasn’t a party member, but she (and importantly, the army) held firm. As she told an audience on Tuesday in Washington (speaking at the USAID Frontiers in Development conference): “I just had to get out of bed at 6am and take the job.” Banda became Africa’s second female head of state, following in the footsteps of Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom she credits with making her life so much easier since today “people don’t doubt women’s leadership.”
In so many ways, Banda’s no-nonsense style is a breath of fresh air. In her short ten weeks on the job, she has managed to hit all the right notes and send every signal that she is serious about reform. She stresses that she has two clear goals: to enhance democracy in the country and to put Malawi back on the path of strong economic growth. So far, she has made progress on both fronts. She quickly cleaned house, firing the powerful police chief who has been blamed for the deaths of anti-government protestors last summer, and also several other Mutharika cronies; she launched an investigation into the murky 2011 death of student-activist Robert Chasowa; she has opened up the state media to cover opposition figures; and she has spoken out strongly in support of human rights. She refused to allow Sudan’s President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, into Malawi to attend the African Union Conference (the conference has since been moved elsewhere) and she has promised to get rid of Malawi’s anti-gay laws.
On the economic front, she has worked hard to patch up relations with donors. During his second term, President Mutharika became increasingly autocratic and belligerent with the donor community–a risky strategy when foreign assistance accounted for some 20 percent of the country’s GDP. The UK last year ceased direct budgetary support to Malawi and the IMF froze its loans. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) also suspended its program. Now, the IMF has resumed lending and Great Britain is considering doing the same. The MCC office in Malawi recently reopened and Banda says she is very hopeful that its compact will be reinstated when the MCC board meets later this month. Banda has also devalued the currency and raised interest rates and energy prices significantly.
Banda promises a combination of austerity cuts (in a much appreciated move, she is selling the $13 million presidential jet, asking “Why did we have it in the first place?” and working on reducing the presidential motorcade) and social investments. She has launched a Presidential Initiative on Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood and is focused on several educational and economic empowerment opportunities for women. She is committed to improving agricultural productivity, increasing exports, and reducing the crushing poverty of her country where more than half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day.
In her USAID speech, Banda said that “the best dreams that come true are the ones in color” and noted that she dreams in color. She dreams of seeing all of Malawi’s girls and boys in school, getting a quality education; she dreams of her countrymen having access to electricity all day long, and clean water; and that opposition figures are respected; and–her “wildest” dream–that kids in Malawi will someday be playing on computers. These dreams, she says, are no crazier than thinking ten weeks ago that today she would be now be president.