When Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack in April, it wasn't immediately clear what would become of his vice president, Joyce Banda. The two had fallen out in recent years, with the increasingly autocratic president booting Banda from his political party in 2010. Even Mutharika's wife publicly derided the smalltown veep -- a longtime grassroots advocate for women, children, and the poor -- scoffing, "She will never be president. How can a mandazi [fritter] seller be president?" After a tense two days in the wake of Mutharika's death, however, Banda proved the first lady wrong, becoming Africa's second-ever female president.
Governing Malawi -- where an estimated 75 percent of its more than 15 million residents live on $1 or less a day -- presents enormous challenges, to be sure. But in just seven months Banda has largely thrown out her predecessor's playbook, showing the world how to take charge and work to turn around a troubled country. Within days of taking office, she dismissed key members of Mutharika's administration, including the police chief in power when 19 Malawian demonstrators were killed at a 2011 opposition rally, and in May, amid rising persecution of gays in Africa, she vowed to repeal Malawi's laws against homosexuality. By devaluing the Malawian currency by more than a third, a move Mutharika had long refused despite the IMF's urging, Banda also secured a much-needed $157 million IMF loan in June -- a first step toward rebuilding Malawi's debilitated economy.
Her work is cut out for her. So far, however, all signs suggest Banda could become a new model for African leadership -- shedding the strongman syndrome and getting down to business to help the poor. To prove it, she has cut her own salary by 30 percent and put her predecessor's $12 million presidential jet and most of his fleet of 60 luxury cars up for sale. "I can as well use private airlines," she said. "I am already used to hitchhiking." But it's more than that: "I must demonstrate to Malawians that we are in this together," she explained to Al Jazeera. "I must be the first person to set an example." For Malawi, and the world over.