Malawi has made history. During this 4-day Easter long weekend, a truly improbable thing has happened.
Not only is she Malawi’s first female President (and only the 4th President since colonial rule ended and the 3rd since Malawi became a democracy)...
She is Africa’s 2nd Female President EVER, the FIRST lady Head of State in both the SADC and COMESA regions, AND
The world’s 60th female president since 1940.
There are many reasons why this event was improbable (which I will touch on later), but first let me provide you with a bit of background on Malawi and tell you how one of the least developed nations in the world came to have a woman at the helm.
After achieving independence from Britain in the early 1960’s, Malawi became a one-party state under late President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, an autocrat who ruled for 30 years. Following a referendum, Malawi became a multiparty state in 1994.
Since then, Malawi had 2 elected Presidents. The first being Bakuli Muluzi for 2 terms, followed Bingu wa Mutharika.
Mutharika’s first term was highly successful, seeing rapid growth of the Malawian economy and making Malawi the sweetheart of many foreign donors. This began to change during his second and last term, set to end in 2014.
After expelling the British High Commissioner for a leaked diplomatic cable which called Mutharika increasingly ‘autocratic and intolerant to criticism’, relations with Britain, one of countries’ biggest donors, cooled.
In July 2011, Malawians took to the streets in peaceful protest over the country’s increasing economic woes, including rising prices and a shortage of fuel and foreign currency. Police opened fire and at least 19 people were shot dead.
Since July, donors have been pulling Malawian government aid funding due to poor governance and economic mismanagement. This has aggravated many problems in a country where historically 40% of the country’s budget comes from foreign aid.
Not having foreign currency makes it very difficult if not impossible to import items into a country, and in landlocked Malawi with little in terms of natural resources, this has had a devastating effect. The fuel crises has worsened, and on days when fuel arrives at a filling station, people queue for blocks in hopes of getting some before the pump runs dry. Prices of bread, soft drinks (and you name it!) have gone up and businesses are suffering. Most recently there has been a shortage of sugar (hundrends line up around the store if a shipment comes in) and medicine (do the math in a country with an HIV prevalence of 11%).
In the same way Malawians joke that a meal isn’t a meal if it doesn’t include Nsima, a conversation here seems incomplete if it doesn’t touch on the unavailability of fuel, forex, sugar or medication.
Now back to the Presidency:
On Thursday, April 5, the phone networks were overloaded by phone calls and texts containing rumours about the President having a heart attack. Around mid-day, I saw a low flying grey plane overhead. Seeing an airplane over Lilongwe is pretty uncommon (most airline carriers have stopped flights due to the forex and fuel problems) and it raised some eyebrows.
The rumours continued – ‘the President has died’ / ‘the president is alive but has been taken to South Africa for treatment’/ ‘the president is dead but in south Africa for confirmation of cause of death’… and many variations thereof.
By Friday morning, the BBC was reporting Mutharika’s death due to heart attack, but the Malawian government hadn’t made an official announcement. The country held its breath and waited… then people started getting angry ‘the president apparently died on Thursday morning and the nation isn’t confirming to it’s own people?!’
Fears mounted that a ‘constitutional crises was imminent’ (direct quote from BBC article) and that officials were buying time.
Here’s why: Joyce Banda, Malawi’s (former) Vice President was appointed by Mutharika in 2009. He soon expelled her from his ruling party for undefined ‘anti-party’ activities. Despite her party expulsion and the exclusion of the Vice President from Cabinet, she retained her post as per the Malawian constitution and formed her own party, the People’s Party (PP).
Although the Malawian constitution provides that the Vice President will carry out the President’s duties if he/she become incapacitated or dies, media was reporting that government officials were arguing behind the scenes that she should not become President given that she wasn’t a member of the late President’s party.
I felt nervous about the growing power vacuum (as such a vacuum means that those behind the scenes have time to vie for power). The President’s death was finally announced on Saturday morning amidst rumours that the constitutionally defined succession process would be thwarted by insiders wishing to place the late President’s brother into power.
I was thrilled to be proven wrong on Saturday evening. Sitting around a crackling radio with a mix of locals and expats, Joyce Banda was appointed President of Malawi.
Sounding confident, strong and compassionate, Africa’s 2nd female president called for 2 minutes of silence for the passing of ‘the nations’ father’. She then said that it is time for the nation to heal and that she was not interested in revenge. She asked for peace to prevail and indicated she would further address the nation at a future and more appropriate time.
I feel so grateful to be in Malawi during this exciting time and have tempered optimism about the near future of this beautiful country. Malawi has some very severe gender inequalities, making this all the more remarkable. The smoothness of a power transition where so many have so much at stake has floored many of us and proved foreign spectators wrong in their predictions of ‘constitutional crises’.
Malawians have been dancing in the streets and wide smiles are stretching across countless faces.
Congratulations and good luck to Malawi and Joyce Banda!
A little aside:
Speaking of predictions… For those who are interested in the supernatural or who fancy the inexplicable, here is a parallel tale worth mentioning as it has set many a Malawian tongue a-wagging…
On February 5, 2012, TB Joshua, a Nigerian televangelist and self proclaimed prophet addressed an audience at a sermon in Lagos.
He asserted that an old African leader would fall ill and die in 2 months. ‘I’m talking about April… seeing a head of state, by that I mean a President. He is not feeling well. He is very old. What is this I’m seeing… sudden death. I’m seeing the death of an old African President in two months.’
This set speculation rife among his followers: is it Mugabe (Zimbabwe)?, Sata (Zambia)?, Mutharika (Malawi)?… the list of older African Presidents is quite long. Speculation become so intense that the b ruling party issued a statement against the prophesies and opposition parties in many countries started using the prophesy to promote their popularity.
On March 18th, TB Joshua again addressed his audience on the matter at another service, prophesizing that the death was coming on one of the next 3 Thursdays. He asked his audience to pray and then said that the death - ‘is it Thursday of this week, or next week or in three Thursdays coming’.
The last prophesy on the issue was on April 1, 2012 when he said that the death was ‘very close’ and ruled out West African leaders from the prophesy. ‘The time is very, very close now… pray for your leader, the head of a nation, I’m seeing a sudden death from the result of sickness… the person is in Africa… but not in West Africa. ‘
Exactly two months after the first prediction, on Thursday April 5, 2012, Malawi lost her President due to sickness. Everyone of course will have their own thoughts on the prophesy, but it has created quite a buzz here and therefore deserves a mention.