FOR 48 turbulent hours she was the victim of a conspiracy that left the future of Malawi hanging in the balance. Then Joyce Banda made a critical phone call to the head of the army, asking if she could rely on his support. He said yes. And at that moment her place in history was assured.

“You ask how I feel to be the first female president in southern Africa?” she said in an interview. “It’s heavy for me. Heavy in the sense that I feel that I’m carrying this heavy load on behalf of all women. If I fail, I will have failed all the women of the region. But for me to succeed, they all must rally around.”

Banda’s dramatic rise came when President Bingu wa Mutharika’s increasingly autocratic rule was cut short by a fatal heart attack earlier last month.

As vice-president, it was her constitutional right to replace him. After overcoming resistance from Mutharika’s powerful allies, she has now set about rebuilding the country’s shattered economy and pursuing a cause close to her heart: women’s rights. The 61-year-old first rose to prominence as a champion of female empowerment, founding organisations including a microfinancing network for thousands of women in rural areas. She says her own experiences of marriage have driven her crusade.

“I got married at 22 and remained in an abusive marriage for 10 years,” she told the Guardian during a visit to Pretoria, South Africa. “I made up my mind that that was never going to happen to me again. I made a brave step to walk out in a society when you didn’t walk out of an abusive marriage.”

Pointing to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, Africa’s first elected female head of state, Banda added: “Africa is changing in that regard and I hope you know that we are doing better than most countries. America is still struggling to put a woman in the White House but we have two, so we’re doing fine.”

Compared to her strait-laced predecessor, Banda dresses colourfully — her spectacles have sparkly Dolce & Gabbana designer frames.

In the interview, she revealed the inside story of how Mutharika’s sudden death pushed Malawi to the precipice of a coup. By April 6, the news had spread worldwide yet there was still no official confirmation inside Malawi itself. The cabinet met secretly in an attempt to thwart Banda and install Mutharika’s brother, Peter, as acting president.

Ministers held a press conference “in the middle of the night” on state television, she recalled, “telling the nation that I had no authority to act as president, that they were making arrangements to take over, that after all the president was OK and recovering. And all the while he was dead the previous day at 12 o’clock.”

On April 7, South Africa confirmed Mutharika’s death and Malawi’s cabinet sought a court order to block Banda. It was then she phoned the army commander, Gen Henry Odillo, who sided with her and stationed troops around her house. Banda observed: “The fact that the army stood up and restored order is a sign that we have matured.” She has pledged to follow IMF advice by devaluing the national currency by 40 per cent.

— The Guardian, London

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