Joyce Banda assumes control in Malawi
Lilongwe - Malawian Vice-President Joyce Banda took over the running of the country on Saturday after the death of 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 on Saturday, 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 ruling DPP 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 Peter, the foreign minister, 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 United States, 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 (Banda) who is next in line will be sworn in shortly," the US state department said.
British foreign minister William Hague said in a statement on Saturday: "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 the capital Lilongwe and the main commercial city Blantyre were calm on Saturday, though police guarded strategic locations.
There appeared to be little public sorrow at Mutharika's death. Many of Malawi's 13m 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.
After Britain and others froze aid worth some 40% of government spending, fuel supplies dried up and food prices soared, leading to popular unrest and attacks on Mutharika's economic policies by bodies as diverse as the Catholic Church and the International Monetary Fund.
"It's sad that he is leaving behind so many unsolved problems, which will be difficult to tackle even by the vice president or whoever takes charge," said Stella Mataka, a waiter at a lodge near Blantyre's Chileka International airport.
As reports of the death of the self-styled "Economist in chief" swept the capital, there were bursts of drunken jubilation among those who accused Mutharika of turning back the clock on 18 years of democracy in the "Warm Heart of Africa".
Medical sources said Mutharika's body was flown to South Africa because Malawi's energy crisis was so severe the Lilongwe state hospital would have been unable to conduct a proper autopsy or even keep his body refrigerated.
"We as government will be in consultation with the bereaved family, advise the date when our president's body will arrive from South Africa and other funeral arrangements," Banda said.
"I also want to ask all Malawians to join me in wishing that the soul of our president rests in peace," she added.