Malawi’s President, Joyce Banda, is somewhat of a rarity. Along with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, she is one of only two female African heads of state.

Image courtesy of Secretary of Defense, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Secretary of Defense, © 2013, some rights reserved.

Banda and Sirleaf are together the global face of African women. But despite this feat winning her international recognition, Banda is now facing criticism at home and abroad.

Banda came to power a little over a year ago amidst a constitutional sandstorm. Upon her predecessor’s death in April 2012, the Cabinet attempted to install the deceased President’s brother as his successor, provoking much protest from supporters of Banda, who as Vice President was next in the constitutional line of succession. Following a tense week of argument and fears of a constitutional crisis, Banda managed to secure the support of the courts and the military, effectively guaranteeing her succession to the presidency.

The Malawi that Banda took over as President was a nation at its nadir. Years of economic mismanagement and selfish corruption at the top had left the country – already one of the poorest in the world – in its worst financial state for a long time. Repressive anti-gay laws and other concerns over human rights had also led to sanctions and the withholding of aid from Western nations protesting illiberal policies.

Upon assuming power Banda took a pay cut, sold off her predecessor’s private jet and fleet of luxury cars, which many ordinary Malawians regarded as an obscenity at a time they struggled to put food on the table. She also promised a raft of reforms that aimed at refreshing relations with the West and re-securing aid, winning her plaudits from the international community and seeing her efforts welcomed by the international media. Despite her initial successes, however, she is now facing criticism over what opponents characterize as a lack of effective action on the economy. Interest rates have roughly doubled to 25% while inflation is now at 36.4%. Growth rates last year fell to 1.8% – the country’s poorest results since it became independent from the UK 50 years ago[1].

A piece by the Guardian last month noted that the Malawian economy has not responded well to the IMF programme ushered in by Banda[2]. The policies have strained ordinary Malawians financially, and Malawi’s poorest continue to get poorer. Despite this failure, IMF head Christine Lagarde has urged Banda to push on with the austerity. Banda’s desire, according to writer Elliot Ross, to promote Malawi as an attractive destination for foreign direct investment despite the toll the programme is taking on its citizens, does not wash with the image she presents abroad as a pioneer for the rural poor and women’s rights, and it’s when she offers Malawi as a sob story that she convinces”[3].

Banda has also been recently involved in an embarrassing spat with entertainer Madonna, who famously adopted children from Malawi. A press release[4] (apparently sent by an aide without official permission) condemning Madonna for her diva-ish sense of ‘entitlement’ and accusing her charity of exaggerating its achievements in the country, raised eyebrows around the globe. Madonna hit back, claiming that Banda was disgruntled following the removal of her sister’s prominent role in the charity.

Banda isn’t the only African leader who has been generating negative headlines. Her Liberian counterpart and the continent’s only other female head of state, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, last year saw herself accused of nepotism over the appointment of three of her sons to senior roles in the government.

The move saw heavy criticism from the opposition, and triggered the resignation from Liberia’s peace and reconciliation commission of Leymah Gbowee[5], an activist with whom Sirleaf shared the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. The President and her family have contested the allegations, but the controversy, along with suggestions of corruption over land sales to foreign companies, has tarnished an otherwise perfect image.

Sirleaf’s Peace Prize, awarded for her struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”[6] following the Liberian Civil War was well-deserved, while her tenure has seen the stabilisation of the economy and the near elimination of foreign debt.  Her achievements are even more striking when measured against the backdrop of conflict and devastation with which Liberia is only beginning to come to terms.

Banda and Sirleaf are both inspirational leaders, in part because they are the first women to attain their positions, and in part because of the way in which they have managed to turn their respective nations around – Sirleaf admittedly more so than Banda. But their recent controversies remind us that women are no more immune to the failings and pitfalls of politics than men, especially in the murky world of African statecraft – an environment still plagued by corruption and endemic poor leadership.

Stories of far greater incompetence and ethically questionable practices by male African leaders have gone virtually unnoticed in the global media, but as female trailblazers and symbols of hope and progress in a continent otherwise portrayed as politically retarded, Banda and Sirleaf’s alleged shortcomings have been somewhat magnified. And while their achievements go far beyond being the first in their position of their gender, the real scandal is that female leaders in Africa, and indeed around the world, are still not commonplace.

Africa has arguably the worst record of all continents when it comes to the representation of women in the highest levels of politics. Although there are some positive indicators – in the wake of its brutal genocide, Rwanda has the only legislature in the world where over half the members are women – there is still much to be done across the continent to encourage grassroots participation of women in politics.

High profile figures such as Banda, Sirleaf and African Union Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma may provide inspiration to African women, but leadership opportunities in all areas of society need to be promoted to make such positions seem like a viable option to women.

However, with Western states like Britain which long ago elected their first female leaders struggling to follow this advice, African countries which have not benefitted from such a head start may find it takes some time until equal representation is achieved.