Malawian Vice President Joyce Banda took over the running of the southern African nation yesterday after the death of Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, and fears of a succession struggle receded as state institutions backed the constitutional handover.
The government only officially confirmed 78-year-old Mutharika’s death earlier yesterday, two days after he had died following a heart attack.
His body had been flown to a military hospital in South Africa.
The delay in the announcement had raised worries about a political crisis because Banda had been expelled from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party in 2010 after an argument about the succession, though she retained her state position.
Banda, 61, who will be southern Africa’s first female head of state, appeared at a news conference in the capital, Lilongwe, to declare 10 days of official mourning for Mutharika, who had ruled for eight years. She ordered national flags to be flown at half-mast and the state broadcaster to play sombre music.
“I call upon all Malawians to remain calm and to keep the peace during this time of bereavement,” Banda said, flanked by members of the Cabinet, the attorney general and the heads of the army and the police.
Asked by a reporter whether she was assuming the presidency, Banda, a women’s rights activist, replied: “As you can see, the constitution prevails.”
The constitution stipulates that the vice president takes over if the president dies, but Mutharika appeared to have been grooming his brother, Malawian Foreign Minister Peter Mutharika, as his de facto successor.
Banda is expected to run the country until scheduled elections take place in 2014.
The presidency and Cabinet issued a statement assuring citizens and the international community “that the constitution of the Republic of Malawi will be strictly adhered to in managing the transition.”
Both Britain and the US, which had been major donors to Malawi until they froze millions of dollars in aid over rows with Mutharika over his policies and actions, urged a smooth transition respecting the constitution.
“We trust that the vice president, who is next in line, will be sworn in shortly,” the US State Department said.
British Foreign Minister William Hague said in a statement yesterday: “I urge all sides to remain calm and [hope] that a peaceful handover takes place as provided for under Malawi’s constitution.”
The streets of Lilongwe and the main commercial city, Blantyre, were calm yesterday, though police guarded strategic locations.
There appeared to be little public sorrow at Mutharika’s death.
Many of Malawi’s 13 million people had viewed him as an autocrat personally responsible for an economic crisis that stemmed ultimately from a diplomatic row with former colonial power Britain a year ago.