By the standards of most African leaders, President Joyce Banda is a renegade.

Since taking office less than four months ago, she has threatened to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, indicted for war crimes, if he tries to enter her country. She has suggested that Malawi repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality, at a time when many other African countries are moving to strengthen theirs. And in a part of the world where repression of journalists is widespread, she has ushered in media freedoms.

“For me, Malawi comes first,” said Banda, 62, the country’s first female president and Africa’s second, after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

On a continent where many leaders cling to power, driven by ego and ill-gotten wealth, Western diplomats and aid workers are hailing Banda as a new kind of African leader. When she was sworn into office on April 7, after President Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack, few expected her to pull her troubled Southern African nation from the brink of an economic meltdown. But today, she is doing just that — and more.

“The message she sends is that principled leadership for the benefit of the people is the right thing to do,” said Jeanine E. Jackson, the U.S. ambassador to Malawi. “She cares about the people, while a lot of African leaders are more caring about themselves.”

The case of the presidential jet, many say, is evidence. Mutharika bought the $12 million aircraft, earning the wrath of international donors who considered it a wasteful use of funds. Banda instantly decided to sell it, along with most of the government’s fleet of 60 luxury cars, preferring to use the money to help her nation, one of the poorest in the world with an estimated three-quarters of its 15 million people living on less than $1 a day.

“The jet has to go,” she said. “It is expensive even just parked.”

Her critics charge that she is a lackey of the United States and other international donors, that she is determined to implement Western economic prescriptions, even if they cause additional hardships for the population. Banda denies the allegations, arguing that she could have pushed through more painful reforms if she wanted to appease donors.

The main question many here ask is this: Will Banda remain committed to her reformist path or will she transform into yet another African autocrat?

They remember how their previous leaders, including Mutharika, started off enacting reforms, only to lead their country into ruin. They remember how in the 1990s, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni were lauded by Western powers as the continent’s greatest hopes. All three have used repression and electoral abuse to prolong their authoritarian rule.

“In Africa, governments, especially leaders, start very well, but later on when power corrupts, things change,” said Pius Mtike, a Malawian journalist. “As of now, we can say that we are able to operate freely, and we can only hope this will continue.”

Shunning luxuries

The Malawi that Banda inherited was an economic basket case, punctured by massive fuel and electricity shortages. Businesses were shutting down; investors were fleeing. Last July, anti-government demonstrators took to the streets, protesting the fuel crisis, rising prices for food and fuel, and high unemployment, triggering a fierce police crackdown.

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