Malawi became the latest African country to escape from a dangerous downward spiral when, on Saturday evening, Vice President Joyce Banda was able to take the oath of office as president in succession to the late and unlamented Bingu wa Mutharika. Now the international community which, although it had largely severed ties to the deceased leader last year over his increasing authoritarianism, was busy over the Easter weekend reaching out to regime loyalists and urging them to respect the constitution and allow Banda to take office, needs to move quickly to resume the flow of aid and investment in order to give her and the southern African country, once a promising candidate for growth, a fighting chance. 

A small, landlocked nation of some 16 million people occupying a sliver of territory about the size of Pennsylvania, Malawi has long been one of the world’s poorest countries. Last year it ranked a miserable 171st among 187 countries scored on the United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index, just one notch above war-ravaged Afghanistan. And yet, until recently, the country had an impressive growth record that underscored its potential: in the decade ending in 2009, for example, annual growth was above 7 percent. 

Part of the credit belongs to the late President Mutharika, a former World Bank economist (albeit one with what turned out to be dubious academic credentials from a now-defunct Los Angeles-based diploma mill) who won multiparty elections in 2004 with 35 percent of the vote. During his first term, Mutharika presided over an anti-corruption campaign that eventually saw the prosecution of dozens of officials from the old regime, including his predecessor as president, Bakili Muluzi, who was indicted in 2009 on no fewer than 86 counts of graft. Through its Farm Inputs Subsidy Programme, the administration increased the availability of fertilizer to the country’s small farmers, leading to an increase in yields of burley tobacco, which accounts for over half of Malawi’s exports, as well as staple crops like maize. 

The international community responded to the performance, with the United Kingdom, the former colonial ruler, and the United States leading the way with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid. Just a year ago, the board of the US taxpayer-financed Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which provides development assistance to countries that demonstrate a commitment to good governance, approved a $350.7 million compact with Malawi to deliver much needed investment in the country’s energy sector infrastructure in order to facilitate future growth. 

Not surprisingly, Mutharika handily won reelection to a second five-year term three years ago, capturing almost two-thirds of the votes in field of seven candidates. Unfortunately, things began to unravel in his second term. Constitutionally barred from a third term in office, the septuagenarian began grooming his brother Peter, whom he appointed foreign minister in a reshuffled cabinet, as his successor. This put him in a collision course with the vice president, Joyce Banda, a charismatic champion of women’s rights who, after a breakup with an abusive husband left her three children to support on her own, started what became a string of successful businesses and then went on to found a number of NGOs, including the National Association of Business Women (a network of some 30,000 women entrepreneurs), the Young Women’s Leaders Network, and the Joyce Banda Foundation, which works on sustainable education and healthcare delivery to rural areas. She had served successively as minister of gender, child welfare, and community services and minister of foreign affairs in his first administration. Among her successes was winning passage for a domestic violence bill that had failed in parliament seven years in a row. Banda’s achievements are all the more remarkable given that Malawi was ruled for three decades until 1994 by the eccentric physician-turned-president-for-life Hastings Kamuzu Banda (no relation) whose views on gender equality were so antediluvian that he legislated the length of skirts and even banned the wearing of trousers by women. 

In December 2010, the Mutharika brothers had Banda, who was also first vice president of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), expelled from the party. Also ousted was the DPP’s second vice president, Khumbo Kachali, Malawi’s minister of transportation and public infrastructure. Although Kachali was also fired from his cabinet post, there was nothing the Mutharikas could do under the constitution to remove Banda from the vice presidency. She established her own People’s Party last year with widespread support from DPP rank-and-file members who resigned en masse to protest the shabby treatment she received and emerged as one of Mutharika’s fiercest critics, a position that was not without its risks—when my wife and I spent time in South Africa last month with Banda and her husband Richard, a distinguished jurist who served as Malawi’s chief justice until the mandatory retirement age and was subsequently contracted by the Commonwealth to serve as chief justice of Swaziland, the couple had just received warning of a plot to against them. 

Frustrated, Bingu wa Mutharika became increasingly intolerant of political dissent and criticism. Various measures were passed curtailing freedom of the press—the most recent of which was a risible March 9 decree ordering local journalists to stop referring to the president as “the big kahuna” on pain of two years’ imprisonment—while protesters were routinely arrested for holding “illegal” demonstrations or worse. In July 2011, troops were unleashed against protestors, resulting in some nineteen peaceful marchers, including children, shot dead and dozens more wounded.  

In the aftermath of the violence, Mutharika’s relations with Malawi’s international partners became increasingly strained. The United States froze the MCC grant, while Britain, Germany, Norway, and other countries suspended their respective aid programs. International relations reached a nadir in August when the British high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, was expelled from the country after a local newspaper leaked diplomatic cables which showed him reporting that Malawi’s “governance situation continues to deteriorate in terms of media freedom, freedom of speech and minority rights” and noting—correctly, as his subsequent expulsion ironically proved—that Mutharika was becoming “ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism.” (The one country which did not cut off the regime was China which, in recognition of Mutharika’s 2007 switch of diplomatic allegiances from Taiwan, built him a new parliamentary building as well as a presidential villa; The Guardian reported just two weeks ago: “Speaking recently on state TV, President Mutharika, aptly wearing a Chinese collar suit, boasted, ‘The Chinese government has given us aid absolutely with no strings attached, just as one friend to another.’”

The aid cutoff, which left the government with a nearly 50 percent shortfall in its budget, coincided with a fall in the international price for tobacco. The result was an extreme foreign currency shortage that forced such international companies as were still doing business in Malawi to dramatically scale back their operations because they are unable to find foreign currency to pay suppliers, thus exacerbating the vicious cycle the country’s economy found itself in. 

All of this led to the bizarre crisis that played itself out after Mutharika succumbed to a massive heart attack last Thursday in the capital of Lilongwe. For two days, government refused to acknowledge his demise. State television and radio claimed Mutharika was alive and would be flown to South Africa for treatment even as official condolence messages began pouring in from abroad. Behind the confusion was a barely concealed attempt by regime insiders to circumvent the constitution and install Peter Mutharika as head of state in place of Banda. As a result, the statement released by US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson was model of the diplomatic craft: while carefully worded in the absence of an official Malawian announcement to say Mutharika “reportedly passed away after a sudden illness,” the document went on to affirm unequivocally that “Malawi’s Constitution lays out a clear path for succession, and we expect it to be observed.” America’s senior Africa policymaker went on to declare, “We are concerned about the delay in the transfer of power. We trust that the vice president who is next in line will be sworn in shortly.” Fortunately, that pressure, along with knowledge that, as Banda wrote me in an email late Friday evening, “the whole country is standing with me,” prevailed. 

Now that the peaceful constitutional transfer of power has occurred, the international community needs to move quickly if it wants to shore up Banda and help Malawi recover the ground it has lost these past several years. And while the new president has already shown she is fully capable of doing what needs to be done—on Sunday, she sacked powerful Police Inspector General Peter Mukhito who, in addition to command responsibility for last year’s crackdown, is also personally implicated in the mysterious death of a university student involved in organizing protests—she can certainly use all the help she can get, not only with holdouts from the Mutharika regime who cannot reconcile themselves to her presidency (in her short inaugural speech, Banda offered an olive branch to the more adaptable: “I want all of us to move into the future with hope and with that spirit of oneness and unity…I just sincerely hope that there is no room for revenge”), but also Malawi’s manifold economic and social challenges. The country’s currency, the kwacha, is currently pegged to a dollar at an official exchange rate that is barely half of the black market rate—the Mutharikas had resisted pressure from the International Monetary Fund (including a delegation that left Malawi just a week ago) to devalue, resulting in the latter freezing its critical loan program. Two-thirds of the population currently live below the national poverty line, while 46 percent of children under the age of five are chronically malnourished. Even those with money face long lines at stores and service stations for sugar, fuel, and other basic commodities.  

President Banda told me over the weekend, “We will need all the support the international institutions can provide.” And, given how much the world could use all the Joyce Bandas Africa can produce, it would behoove Malawi’s international partners to engage swiftly and substantially to secure this latest advance for democracy on the continent.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center 

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