Joyce Hilda Banda, née Joyce Hilda Mtila, (born April 12, 1950, Malemia, Nyasaland [now Malawi]), Malawian politician who served as vice president (2009–12) and president (2012–14) of Malawi. She was the first woman to serve as head of state anywhere in Southern Africa.
Banda’s official government profile states that she obtained a bachelor’s degree from Atlantic International University, an online university based in the United States. During her first marriage, to Roy Kachale, she lived in Nairobi, where she became active in the women’s movement. Her personal experience in an abusive marriage shaped her evolving career in grassroots activism and politics, as did her subsequent marriage to Richard Banda, a barrister would who would later serve as chief justice of Malawi (1992–2002) and whom she credited as being supportive of her efforts. Before focusing on politics, Joyce Banda founded and directed various businesses and organizations, including a garment-manufacturing business, a bakery, the National Association of Business Women of Malawi, and the Joyce Banda Foundation, an organization dedicated to rural development and improving the lives of women and children.
In 2004 Banda was elected to the National Assembly as a member of the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF); the next year she moved to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), formed by Pres. Bingu wa Mutharika, under whom she served as minster of gender, child welfare, and community services (2004–06) and as minister of foreign affairs (2006–09). In her various ministerial capacities, she designed the Zero Tolerance Campaign Against Child Abuse and established relations with mainland China. Banda was Mutharika’s running mate in 2009 and won election as vice president, the first woman to hold that office in Malawi. In late 2010 she was expelled from the DPP after a dispute with Mutharika regarding who would succeed him as the DPP presidential candidate in the next election, but she continued to serve as vice president. Though she was out of official favour, her popularity did not diminish among the public because of her tough stance against government corruption and her strong campaigns for grassroots development and gender parity. In April 2011 she founded the People’s Party (PP) and was widely regarded as the major opposition to Peter Mutharika, brother of the president and likely DPP presidential candidate in the next election.
In 2012 President Mutharika’s death after he suffered a heart attack on April 5 was not immediately confirmed and led to a brief period of uncertainty regarding his successor, with his inner circle attempting to block Banda’s constitutional mandate to assume the presidency. But she successfully outflanked them and was sworn in as the fourth president of Malawi on April 7.
As president, Banda faced a difficult task. Malawi ranked as one of the world’s poorest countries and had experienced a deepening political crisis underscored by severe economic setbacks, including chronic fuel shortages and rising food prices. The new president’s resolute insistence that the government adhere to the constitution regarding political succession as well as her efforts soon after taking office to improve relations with foreign donors appeared to avert a political crisis and restored an optimistic outlook for general reform and change. Her pledges to overturn Malawi’s law that banned homosexual activities and eliminate government corruption were examples of the potential for change under her leadership.
Banda initiated austerity measures that won approval from the international community but were not popular at home. Her policies were somewhat effective, as donors resumed a flow of funding to Malawi and the country’s economic growth rate more than doubled during her first two years as president, but much of the country remained mired in poverty.
Banda’s pledge to root out corruption took centre stage in 2013 after the September assassination attempt on Paul Mphwiyo, the Ministry of Finance official whom Banda had appointed to investigate government corruption. The investigation into the attack soon brought to light a massive fraud and corruption scandal, which was dubbed “cash-gate” and allegedly involved senior-level government officials. Some members of Banda’s cabinet were allegedly involved, and on October 10 Banda dissolved her entire cabinet to ensure that the officials under suspicion did not interfere with the investigation. A preliminary report on the scandal indicated that at least $30 million had been stolen from the government. The total amount of government funds allegedly lost through corruption and fraud was estimated to be $100–$250 million.
The cash-gate scandal and its economic fallout—which included the loss of donor confidence and funding—followed Banda in the run-up to the May 2014 presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections. While Banda cited cash-gate as an example of how she was tackling corruption, opposition candidates countered with the observation that the scandal had occurred during her administration, reflecting poorly on her ability to manage the government, and some claimed that she benefited from the misappropriated funds. As the election drew near, Banda looked to be in a close race with Mutharika and two others from the field of 12 presidential candidates.
Voting on May 20, 2014, did not go smoothly, and polls were kept open a second and third day in areas that had experienced significant problems or delays. There were also delays with the tallying of the votes, and Banda and some opposition parties complained of voting irregularities and made allegations of vote rigging, although electoral observers generally agreed that, in spite of some problems, the elections were credible.
On May 24, shortly after partial results began to be released, Banda proclaimed that she was annulling the elections and ordering them to be re-held in 90 days, and she also said that she would not stand in the repeated presidential election. Her proclamation, however, was quickly overturned by the country’s High Court, which said that she did not have the power to annul the elections. The elections generated a flurry of legal filings, including a request by the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) to delay the scheduled release of results to allow for additional time to complete a partial recount of votes from some areas that appeared to have experienced voting anomalies or other problems, but on May 30 the High Court ordered the MEC to announce the results without completing a recount. Mutharika, who had obtained 36.4 percent of the vote, was declared the winner. Banda finished third, with 20.2 percent, and conceded.
Throughout her career Banda received awards and accolades, including the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger in 1997 (shared with Mozambican Pres. Joaquim Chissano) and being named Africa’s third most powerful woman by Forbes magazine in 2011.