Joyce Banda, who rose to prominence as a relentless women’s rights advocate, has become Malawi’s first female head of state after the death of Bingu wa Mutharika, the country’s president.
Banda, who has had to navigate the country’s turbulent political waters in recent years, took office on Saturday after Mutharika died following a cardiac arrest.
The late president had tapped Banda as his deputy in the 2009 elections, but then ousted her from his party the following year.
Banda steadfastly resisted Mutharika’s efforts to force her from office during a succession battle sparked when the late president decided to groom his brother Peter to become his Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) candidate in 2014 polls.
Then, as head of her own People’s Party, she emerged as one of Mutharika’s fiercest critics, lambasting his management of an economy hobbled by fuel shortages.
Banda was born on April 12, 1950, in Malawi’s colonial capital of Zomba. She began her career as a secretary and soon became a well-known public figure.
Banda started a women’s empowerment programme, travelling throughout the country to promote the National Business Women Association, a campaign that made her one of Malawi’s most visible champions of gender equality.
She later established the Joyce Banda Foundation to advance education for girls.
Banda entered politics in 1999, during Malawi’s second democratic elections. She won a parliamentary seat in the party of then-president Bakili Muluzi, who named her minister for gender and community services.
“The chronic disease of third term, or chieftaincy, remains one of the greatest enemies of our efforts to achieve sustainable development“
– Joyce Banda
Five years later, she retained her seat as a candidate for Muluzi’s party, even as Mutharika won the presidency.
When the new president split from Muluzi to form his own party, the DPP, Banda followed and became foreign minister in 2006.
During her time as Malawi’s top diplomat, the country severed its long ties with Taiwan and established relations with Beijing.
Banda argued the switch would bring economic benefits to Malawi. China has since built Malawi a new parliament in the capital Lilongwe, where Banda was sworn into office as president on April 7.
Mutharika tapped her as his running mate in the 2009 elections, but their political honeymoon was short as party in-fighting intensified over his decision to anoint his brother as his successor, drawing accusations that he was trying to create a dynasty.
“The chronic disease of third term, or chieftaincy, remains one of the greatest enemies of our efforts to achieve sustainable development,” she said.
“The country is constantly caught in a vicious circle of privatisation of the state where one or two people hold the fate of the country.”
Banda’s ousting from the ruling party angered many urban voters, and she remained a popular figure for many Malawians.
But, her critics have questioned her ability to steer the country through its economic crisis, with the currency trading on the black market at twice the official exchange rate.
After anti-government protests broke out in July last year, when police shot dead 19 people, Banda warned that Malawi could face more unrest ahead of the next polls.
“The road to 2014 will be rough, bumpy and tough. Some will even sacrifice their own lives,” she said.
Banda remains a role model to many women in Malawi for her fight for her gender in a male-dominated society.
She is now the first ever female leader in southern Africa, and the continent’s second female leader of modern times, after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
She is married to retired chief justice Richard Banda. Her family is among the most influential in Malawi.