Malawi's new president takes charge with energy

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In less than a week in office, Malawi's first woman president has fired the police chief, information minister and top state broadcaster and opened an investigation into the 2011 death of an activist who had criticized her predecessor.

Joyce Banda's decisiveness and energy is no surprise to those who have watched her rise from being a women's development advocate. She became president of this impoverished southern African country after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika, with whom she had clashed even as she remained his vice president.

In a largely conservative and patriarchal society, Banda was a surprise choice when Mutharika made her his running mate in 2009. She showed her toughness when Mutharika tried to promote his brother over her as his successor, which many saw as a ploy by Mutharika to extend his influence beyond the constitutionally allowed two terms.

Banda's refusal to endorse Peter Mutharika as a presidential candidate led to her expulsion from the governing Democratic Progressive Party. A senior ruling party official said Malawi was not ready for a female president. First Lady Callista Mutharika derided Banda, saying she was a mere market woman selling mandasi, or fritters.

"Yes, she's right, I'm indeed a mandasi seller and I'm proud of it, because the majority of women in Malawi are like us, mandasi sellers," Banda shot back in a February interview with The Associated Press, when the controversy over Peter Mutharika was raging. She formed her own party after being forced out of Mutharika's DPP.

After Mutharika died April 5, the government took two days to confirm his death and allow Banda to step in. The delay had led to speculation that Banda's rivals were trying to prevent her from becoming president, even though the constitution decrees the vice president should take over.

Banda was sworn in April 7 to complete Mutharika's second term, which ends in 2014.

Banda, 62, entered politics in 1999, winning a seat in parliament and being named minister for gender and community services by then-President Bakili Muluzi, once Mutharika's mentor. Muluzi backed Mutharika in 2004 elections, and after winning Mutharika promoted Banda to foreign minister. Banda sided with Mutharika when he broke with Muluzi.

Fighting poverty and helping women have long been Banda's focus. She founded the National Association of Business Women in 1989 to give startup cash to women entrepreneurs.

"The women didn't go to school when they were young because parents preferred to send their brothers, the women couldn't access loans in their own right because the banks sought the approval of a male dependent, the women couldn't make decisions at household level because they didn't bring any income into the household," she told AP in February.

She saw giving them an economic lift as "a good starting point to changing lives of women for the better." She has said her work in rural areas has taught her about the "dehumanizing" impact of poverty.

She comes to power at a time when Malawi is facing serious economic challenges. Mutharika, who was seen as growing increasingly authoritative and intolerant of criticism in his second term, had strained relations with most of Malawi's traditional Western donors.

At a news conference Tuesday, Banda said she has received calls from Britain's Africa Minister Henry Bellingham and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and spoken with International Monetary Fund officials.

Last year, Mutharika expelled Britain's High Commissioner to Malawi after the envoy was quoted in a local newspaper as expressing concern that the president was increasingly intolerant of criticism and human rights were under attack. Britain, a former ruler of Malawi, then indefinitely suspended aid to Malawi, which in the end invited the envoy back.

Last month, a U.S. aid agency that rewards good governance suspended $350 million worth of assistance to Malawi.

The IMF describes its program with Malawi as "off-track." Mutharika had ignored IMF advice to devalue the country's currency.

Banda said she was working on normalizing relations with donors. One issue may complicate her plans: Peter Mutharika, the late president's brother, remains foreign minister.

Banda walked out of what she called an abusive marriage to Roy Kachale in 1981. The couple had three children. Banda now is married to retired Chief Justice Richard Banda with whom she has two children.

"Most African women are taught to endure abusive marriages," she said. "They say endurance means a good wife but most women endure abusive relationship because they are not empowered economically, they depend on their husbands."

Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who in 2006 became the first African woman elected head of state, has recounted being abused as a young wife by a husband she later divorced. In speaking out about abuse, Banda and Sirleaf share more than being political pioneers for women on the continent.

Earlier this year, Banda joined protest against attacks by men on women wearing miniskirts and pants. Some of attackers claim such dress is un-Malawian or a sign of loose morals.

"Some of us have spent our entire life fighting for the freedom of women," Banda told the protesters. "It's shocking some men want to take us back to bondage."