IT is quite likely that many Malawians will be relieved that their acting president is someone whose name they would not find intimidating or even alien.
Joyce Banda, sworn as president after the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika last week has a name which you are likely to find among many Malawians.
In fact, there could be many Joyce Bandas in Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. Bingu wa Mutharika doesn’t sound Malawian — is not Malawian.
Mutharika invented that name for reasons which remain obscure to this day.
Some say he chose it as a symbol of his pan-Africanist leanings. Others claim he disguised his name because he was being sought by the then Malawian government on suspicion of plotting subversion against the regime.
If the government he plotted to overthrow was that of the founding president of Malawi, Kamuzu Banda, then there is a huge question to be asked.
The question is: why would he be against Kamuzu, a man he openly admired, much to the chagrin of many other Malawians, whose opinion of the so-called Ngwazi was anything but one of admiration?
Anyway, it’s all water under the bridge. Joyce Banda will be president of Malawi until there are elections for a new president. She was Mutharika’s deputy, although their relationship was frosty, to put it mildly.
He fired her from the party he formed, the Democratic Progressive Party.
Mutharika was in power from 2004 until his death.
The brightest spot of his presidency related to an agricultural programme which saw food production booming, for the first time in many years.
The country is basically poor and relies on foreign aid to survive — virtually. Mutharika was a former heavyweight economist on the international scene and probably experimented with his policies while president.
But it was his ham-fisted handling of the people that got him into very hot water.
Although he did fire Joyce Banda from his party, he dared not remove her as his deputy because she had formidable clout of her own among the people.
Much invective passed between them publicly, but Joyce Banda was not deterred in her determined bid to remain in office. She evidently relied on the support of millions of Malawians.
By the time of his death, Mutharika had alienated much of the international community which had routinely propped up his country’s economy.
What he did not want was for the donor countries to be overly critical of his handling of the politics in his country.
But he was an open admirer of Kamuzu Banda, one of the worst dictators in Africa, defeated in an election by Bakhili Muluzi, apparently a former protege of his who belonged to the majority ethnic group, the Yao.
Mutharika started off well. But somewhere along the way his intolerance of criticism grew into an obsession with every year that passed, hence his dismissal of Joyce Banda from their party.
No doubt many other followers abandoned the party when she did.
Their sympathies were with her, in the face of a leader so self-absorbed he reminded many of them of Kamuzu Banda, a man who admired Kwame Nkrumah, after spending years in Ghana, before answering a call by his people to return home and lead the struggle against the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
To this day, nobody could dispute the fact that Kamuzu played one of the most pivotal roles in the African agitation against the federation which the British dismantled in 1963, ten years after they had created it against much African resistance.
Although most Malawians acknowledge that Kamuzu was a hero of their struggle, not all of them can forget that he so despised the people who worked with him that they fled their own country into exile, rather than pledge continued loyalty to a man whose dictatorial tendencies they found intolerable.
Like Mutharika, Kamuzu was basically in deep trouble when the economy began to sink as the Western countries which had propped it up decided they would not condone his despotic policies.
Mutharika turned out to be another African leader, trusted by his people to safeguard their interests, both political and material, who turns out to be so thoroughly self-absorbed he begins to take the people for granted — and pays the price.
Bill Saidi is a veteran writer based in Harare