Joyce Banda, president of Malawi since April, is already a beacon of hope for that desperately poor country, but also for good governance across a continent long plagued by its opposite.
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Joyce Banda, president of Malawi since April, is already a beacon of hope for that desperately poor country, but also for good governance across a continent long plagued by its opposite. Banda has captured the world's attention in short order -- and not just by revealing how she believes she barely escaped assassination by her predecessor, the late Bingu wa Mutharika, or those close to him. President Mutharika had made his brother foreign minister and was grooming him to replace him. Warned by her security guards, Banda switched cars only to see the car she was to be in hit by a large truck.

But much more than the intrigue of a failed assassination -- or her gender in a male-dominated culture (and continent) -- has brought her the world's attention.

Shortly after assuming office -- in a country where 40 percent of the people live on less than $1 a day and the majority can't afford even a bicycle -- Banda declared she would sell the presidential jet and a fleet of 60 Mercedes limousines. When she travels abroad, she flies commercially, even though the air service to Lilongwe is so bad she can get to few places without spending the night in Johannesburg.

"Malawi is half across the river, and the other bank is within reach," said International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde, when she visited Malawi in early January -- one of only two nations on her tour. She praised Banda for moving to devalue Malawi's currency -- despite knowing she would face huge domestic political problems. The new president's resolve drew the admiration of donors and the attention of investors, most of them long wary of Malawi. Under the crushing rule of Banda's predecessors, the poor country was getting only more desperate and corrupt.

Mutharika had expelled the British Ambassador after Wikileaks reported that he had told the British Foreign Office in London that the president was "becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant." Banda welcomed the British back.

In July, it was Malawi's turn to host the African Union summit, a great honor for a nation that received only 760 tourists in all of 2012. But Banda set one condition. Saying she didn't care if Malawi lost the summit, Banda refused to welcome Sudan's leader, Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted and sought by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for crimes against humanity. The summit was moved to Ethiopia. Al-Bashir attended. Banda stayed home.

She also took little time to purge government leaders of questionable integrity, including a police chief accused of responsibility for the death of 19 people in anti-government riots. Mutharika's brother was sacked too. Banda could have attempted to prosecute him and get him out of her way politically; many felt she had cause for his involvement in a conspiracy to deny her the office of president, but she thought it better for Malawian democracy for her not to.

Banda said she was going to reverse Malawi's legal ban on homosexuals, but was able to do so for only a brief 10-day period in November; sadly, she has so far been unable to take on furious opposition led by religious leaders, but her declaration was courageous, and the time could come.

Banda recently told South African journalist and Sunday Times (London) correspondent RW Johnson, "Under Bingu I was marginalized, scandalized, humiliated and he even tried to kill me. So, having been a victim of dictatorship myself I want to do all I can to protect human rights. Human rights and good governance are vital to a democratic society. We have to strengthen our institutions -- and that means I've had to sack a lot of people who were undermining them through corruption or nepotism... I've set up a special monitoring unit within the presidency to watch out for corruption. We also have to ensure that aid is properly spent."

Banda understands that foreign aid can't solve Malawi's problems. "We can only get out of this by our own efforts," she told a group of visitors last week, among them two former presidents. In Malawi for a meeting of the Aspen Institute's Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health (GLC), Presidents Mary Robinson of Ireland and Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia comprise part of a global cheering section for Malawi's president, their colleague and a founding member of the GLC.

A key to Malawi's future may lie in whether Banda can be elected in her own right next year. The opposition is vigorous, determined to get back the spoils of government. But it is divided. And if women vote in the numbers expected, she should be able to win. She is hoping that her reforms have time to show results. The people of Malawi are used to governments promising much and delivering little. She is determined to reverse that trend, and to do so in a way that preserves democratic governance -- and that benefits the poor majority. If she succeeds, she will be an example for all of Africa.

Another key to its future is that Malawi could soon join some of its neighbors in mineral riches. Large deposits of oil and natural gas are now presumed to lie under Lake Malawi, and uranium and rare earths have been discovered. If she can be elected -- and she would be eligible under Malawi's constitution to serve two terms after this partial term -- she could put a lie to another curse of African development: that mineral wealth leads to greater inequality, corruption, and even war. Given the initial evidence from her first year in office, Joyce Banda could be the ideal leader to assure that mineral wealth benefits an entire African nation, and not just those who extract the wealth and those in government and their families and cronies who are given shares of it. .

And Banda has not lost her passion for tackling the most intractable of Malawi's problems; as an activist for women, especially the rural poor, Banda has sought access to almost everything for them -- education, electricity, and the most basic health care. She is a champion above all for providing access to free or affordable education to rural girls, few of whom stay in school past the age of 10.

Malawi's appalling rate of maternal mortality is explained to some extent by the lack of support for educating girls. With no education, an early marriage becomes the only option. Finally, with limited access to family planning, and unable to pay for medical care, or the transportation to travel to a hospital, or even a clinic and trained midwives, women have too many babies too young, often leading to death from complications during pregnancy or childbirth.

It is worth looking closely at the elements of Banda's Safe Motherhood Initiative, aimed at reducing the nation's terrible maternal death toll. Inspired by her human rights conviction that, as she says tirelessly, "even one maternal death is too many," Banda's plan is founded in the realities of what can be achieved in a country with little money, poor infrastructure, deeply rooted cultural impediments and with a daunting shortage of trained medical personnel.

She hopes to raise salaries and improve working conditions for nurses and midwives, and to convince women to space their children and to have their babies in hospitals, rather than at home. Banda says success will rest on the willingness of the nation's most influential leaders -- the traditional village chiefs. In many communities, local chiefs have already begun to exact a fee of a goat or a chicken if a woman has her baby in the village, where she is more likely to suffer life-threatening complications. The incentive is working, according to the President of the Chief's Council.

At dawn on a recent morning at a hospital in Mponela, Malawi, Zinc Chilenje, a nurse who is on call 24 hours a day, had helped two local women give birth to baby girls. He said it had been a good day. Though he had only two beds in the birthing room, he had not had to juggle his charges. Just one more birth would have made the night much harder.

The program in Mponela is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. This means Chilenje has a good stock of contraceptives to help local women space their children, and support from a team of volunteers in the villages who provide contraceptives and help monitor the women's health. Not too far from the hospital is a shelter where expectant mothers can stay in the weeks before they give birth. Not one woman has died in the hospital since 2006, but Chilenje wonders how the success can be replicated across the resource-strapped country.

About 60 miles away in Lilongwe, at the opulent palace built by her predecessor, the president of Malawi is asking herself the same question. One day last week, looking out at the friendly faces of of her fellow members of the Aspen Global Leaders Council, she vowed to fight for the means to expand her life-saving initiative. "No woman should die giving birth to another life," she said. "It will take political will. And that starts with me."

Every year an estimated 3,000 women die in Malawi during pregnancy or in childbirth -- a rate of 675 deaths per 100,000 live births. To meet the relevant UN Millennium Development Goal, the rate will have to fall to 155 by 2015. It's a challenge no other country has met in such a short timeframe. Banda has drive, and a dedicated staff, but she won't be going it alone. "We leave here with a profound sense of commitment," President Robinson told her Malawian colleague. "Malawi speaks to issues the world needs to care more about -- not only for Malawi, but for women everywhere. I assure you, we will help you."

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