After the sudden death, by heart attack, of Malawi’s 78-year president, Bingu wa Mutharika, earlier this month, Malawians anxiously suffered several days of uncertainty. First, the government would not immediately proclaim the president dead. Having been flown to South Africa for medical attention, Mutharika seemed to have gone missing rather than ceasing to exist. The confusion, of course, was ultimately explained by the rules of succession in Malawi, which called for vice president, Joyce Banda, to assume executive power. Not only was Banda a women in a Malawi riddled with casual sexism and long traditions patriarchal behavior, she was also a critic of Mutharika, a former World Bank official who seemingly did the impossible in managing an economic revival but tarnished his reputation by displaying increasingly autocratic behavior.
Mutharika’s death, then, had the potential to plunge Malawi, a small and oddly-shaped country in southern Africa that has often flirted with “state failure” over its 50-year history, into crisis. The question of whether Malawi should even be country — in colonial times Malawi, then known as Nysasland — was a thinly-populated British protectorate where a motley collection of whites and Asians controlled the economy, which mainly consisted of tobacco and tea growing. No less a central figure than Hastings Banda, the president of Malawi on its independence in 1964, questioned whether this long, thin and heavily-rural jurisdiction, should simply be rolled into its much larger neighbor, Zambia, which during British rule was known as Northern Rhodesia.
Doubts about Malawi’s viability have never completely vanished and, during the first decade of the 2000s, when Malawi faced a serious of severe food shortages, questions again arose over whether Malawians ought to voluntarily be absorbed into either Zambia or land-rich Mozambique, neighbor to the east.
Under Mutharika, Malawi settled on a set of policies that reward small farmers, who receive inputs such as fertilizer at reduced prices. The policy contradicted the advice of international assistance experts but Mutharika wisely argued that these experts were the cause of Malawi’s food shortages. He was proved right by Malawian farmers, who grew record amounts of corn under the stimilus of government buying programs. Indeed, Mutharika effectively nationalized the maize crop, repudiating free-market, neo-liberal agricultural policies that remain (sadly) the cornerstone of the international aid community’s approach to African farming.
Mutharika’s vanity, in the end, alienated a voting public that might otherwise have treated him as a hero. His death could have plunged the country into a new crisis, if his inner circle had refused to permit Joyce Banda’s ascension to the presidency. Her path was not blocked and Malawi, for the moment, again seems like a nation that deserves to the world’s admiration, if not Africa’s. Hailed as a grassroots leader, Banda must stand for election in 2014.