African presidencies: Women do it better?

by Tolu Orekoya

Newly minted President of Malawi, Joyce Banda, seems to have gotten off to a flying start after getting into the driver’s seat, but she has to buckle in for the bumpy ride. After gaining her presidency in a scenario eerily similar to that of our own President Jonathan (previous president died suddenly, clearing the way for a supposedly lame duck vice president) she is bent on getting her country back on the right track, before it got derailed during the previous president’s second term.

The Economist paints her first month as president in glowing terms, saying, “[She] has hit the ground running, combining a tough decisiveness with gentle charm and a promise of reform that has delighted almost everyone.”

It seems that she is intent on cleaning house and righting the country after the late President Bingu wa Mutharika seemed to have lost his democratic credentials as a leader, becoming increasingly autocratic and domineering during his second term, alienating foreign governments, investors and donors. It put the country in an unpleasantly precarious position, but Band.a is keen to put that all behind Malawi. From The Economist:

She has fired Mr Mutharika’s powerful police chief, blamed by some for the deaths of 20 anti-government demonstrators at the hands of police last July. The central bank’s governor and the head of the state broadcasting company have also been sacked.

She has resumed talks with the IMF over a new loan, pledged to devalue the currency by 40%, agreed to resume full diplomatic relations with Britain, Malawi’s biggest donor and former colonial ruler, and ordered an official inquiry into the suspicious suicide of a student pro-democracy activist. She has appointed a government that includes representatives of all the main opposition parties as well as members of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). To the dismay of some civil-rights people, many of whom suffered sorely under her predecessor, she has called for reconciliation.

She is the second female president in Africa, following Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who also has a solid reputation for good governance. Though it is much too early to make a call on the success of Banda’s presidency, signs are generally positive. She has had to weather an extremely hostile political climate after falling out of favour with Mutharika, and being ousted from her own political party and left out in the cold. That has turned out to be a boon for the ex-vice president; it seems she owes no political favours and is not beholden to the usual political ‘godfathers’ usually waiting in the wings for their payday.

There is a long way to go for Malawi. Investors and donors have to be lured back, but while she has taken a step in the right direction Banda still has plenty of problems on her hands.

Mrs Banda has persuaded the African Development Bank to pledge $45m in budget support. Zambia and South Africa have donated fuel. But this will tide the country over for only a month or so. Western donors may now resume budget support, but cash is unlikely to arrive much before the end of the year. Meanwhile, Malawians may grow impatient as queues lengthen at petrol stations, farmers clamour for fuel to work their irrigation pumps, and companies continue to go bust for want of imported supplies. Mrs Banda has a mountain to climb.


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