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Malawi’s first female president is sworn in

Over the Easter weekend, Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s president and southern Africa’s first female head of state.

Mrs Banda had been expelled from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in 2010 after refusing to endorse plans for the brother of the president to take over in 2014. However, when President Bingu wa Mutharika recently died in office, as Vice President, Mrs Banda was in line to take over Malawi under the constitution.

Malawians and the international community have high hopes for their new president, who has a background of championing women rights and programmes for the poor. In 1989, Mrs Banda founded the National Association of Business Women, an organisation which lends cash to small start-up traders. This work earned her international recognition – in 1997, she was awarded the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger (jointly winning with the then Mozambican President, Joachim Chissano). She also created the Joyce Banda Foundation, a charity which helps children of poor families and orphans with their schooling. Mrs Banda herself has a degree in early childhood education, so this area is close to her heart.

The new president has already had talks with Malawi’s major international donors, Britain and the United States, who had suspended aid packages to the the country worth almost 1 billion dollars. This financial assistance accounted for around two-fifths of the government’s spending budget. The aid was stopped after former President Mutharika fell out with Western governments. This caused severe shortages of foreign currency, fuel, sugar and drugs in Malawi. As one of the poorest nations in the world – around three-quarters of the population live below the international poverty line – the country could ill afford such disruption. 

The shortages sparked riots last year, in which at least 19 people were killed by police who opened fire. One of President Banda’s first actions, was to sack the police chief who mishandled these anti-government protests. On being sworn into office, Mrs Banda her nation “I want all of us to move into the future with hope and a spirit of unity”. Her countrymen will certainly be hoping for a long-term improvement in Malawi’s situation and development and in the short term, the return of much-needed basic items such petrol and sugar.
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