U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton paid a lightning visit to Malawi to congratulate its new president, one of only two female heads of state in Africa, for pulling her impoverished country back from the economic brink after a political crisis.
Clinton, who is on an African tour, landed in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe and headed directly to a meeting with President Joyce Banda, a veteran women’s rights campaigner who had been the country’s vice president and moved into the top job in April after the death of her erratic predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika.
U.S. officials said Clinton’s five hour visit — the first ever by a U.S. Secretary of State to the southern African country — was a vote of confidence in Banda, who has moved swiftly to woo back international donors after years of damaging mismanagement under Mutharika, Reuters reports.
“President Banda had made critical reforms that are already improving lives and spurring economic recovery,” Clinton said in prepared remarks after meeting the 62-year-old leader, who is now Africa’s second female head of state following Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
The two leaders traded compliments at Malawi’s State House and then moved behind closed doors for talks that were an opportunity for two canny political operators to trade notes.
“For a long time we have been women and children’s activists and I have been waiting for the day when we will meet,” Banda said.
Expelled from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2010 after an argument about the succession, Banda retained her state position. Following Mutharika’s death from a heart attack in April, she successfully enforced her constitutional right to succession and is expected to run the country until elections scheduled for 2014.
Many of Malawi’s 13 million people have welcomed the change from Mutharika, a former World Bank economist who entered government pledging reform but ended up enacting increasingly authoritarian policies and squabbling with donors, who subsequently froze funds which account for about 40 percent of government spending.
Banda has passed an austerity budget and allowed the country’s currency, the kwacha, to devalue by some 49 percent – a move that allowed the International Monetary Fund to approve a $156.2 million loan to boost growth and address the country’s chronic balance of payment problems.
Major donors such as Britain and the United States restarted aid programs following Banda’s accession. The United States in June restored a $350 million assistance program under its Millennium Challenge account which aims to reward good economic and political governance.
In addition to that package, the United States in 2011 provided $230 million in aid to Malawi aimed at agriculture, education and HIV/Aids.
While in Malawi, Clinton also announced that the United States would be spending more than $46 million over the next three years to help strengthen Malawi’s agricultural sector and said the United States was giving the country a pure bred dairy bull to help boost the dairy industry.