The continent of Africa now has a second woman holding the top leadership role in her country.
Joyce Banda was sworn in Saturday as the new president of the southern African nation of Malawi.
The peaceful transition of power is a great relief in Malawi where a political crisis seems to have been averted after the sudden death Thursday of President Bingu wa Mutharika.
For many Malawians who blamed Mutharika for the current economic crisis, it is also a moment of great hope for change.
Early Saturday, when she was still vice president, Banda appeared at a news conference flanked by army, police, and fellow government leaders.
According to Malawi media, she did not directly answer the question of whether she would assume the presidency, but she did say, “The constitution is prevailing.”
Indeed, hours later she took the official oath of office at the National Assembly in the capital of Lilongwe, despite objections from some government ministers.
Malawi’s constitution stipulates the vice president is to take over leadership if the president dies.
Immediately after Mutharika’s death by cardiac arrest, it was unclear if that would happen because Banda had a falling out with Mutharika in 2010.
While she remained vice president, she was kicked out of Mutharika’s political party and formed her own. Mutharika, meanwhile, appeared to be grooming his brother to replace to him.
Banda has ordered the nation’s flags to be flown at half-staff for a 10 day mourning period for her predecessor, but there are already reports of Malawians celebrating Mutharika’s death.
The 78-year-old former World Bank official was elected into office in 2004 and again in 2009, but in recent years he was accused of economic mismanagement, becoming autocratic, and souring relations with important donors—especially the United States and Great Britain—who then withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of much needed aid.
Banda, 61, is a longtime campaigner for women’s rights and better education in Malawi.
She is expected to run the country at least until scheduled elections take place in 2014.
She inherits a difficult task.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world where the majority of people live in abject poverty.
The country is prone to natural disasters—the extremes of drought and flooding– and is facing critical fuel shortages and rising food prices.
To govern effectively, Banda will need cooperation from elected members of Mutharika’s political party, which she was expelled from after she became critical of the late president.
Banda is the daughter of a popular musician.
She is married to a retired chief justice.
She has a sister who was hired by pop legend Madonna to run a school for girls in Malawi, but the project failed and she was fired.
Banda is now the second female head of state in Africa. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected into office in 2006.