Malawi’s government on Saturday confirmed the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika after two days of silence, as his breakaway vice president moved to take the reins of power in a remarkable political shift.
Once Joyce Banda takes office, she would become only the second female African head of state in modern times. She would also lead a country where the parliament is dominated by Mutharika’s party, which expelled her just over a year ago.
The official confirmation ended two days of political intrigue following Mutharika’s fatal heart attack on Thursday, as his inner circle scrounged for ways to keep Banda out of office.
Despite confirmation from doctors and politicians, the government insisted he was alive on Friday night and undergoing treatment in South Africa — only to backtrack the next morning.
“It is with the most profound grief, greatest sorrow, and reverential acceptance of God’s will, that the Office of the President and Cabinet announces to the Malawian nation the untimely passing” Mutharika, the presidency said in a statement.
Mutharika suffered a heart attack at State House at 11:15 am Thursday, and was pronounced dead on arrival at a military hospital in South Africa the same day, said the statement signed by Bright Msaka, secretary to the president.
“The constitution of the Republic of Malawi shall be strictly adhered to in managing the transition,” said the statement, urging “all Malawians to remain united and peaceful during this period and at all times.”Under the constitution, Banda automatically assumes power as vice president. But late Friday, Information Minister Patricia Kaliati claimed that Banda could not take office because she had “formed her own opposition party”.
Both the United States and former colonial power Britain urged a peaceful, constitutional handover.
The debate appeared settled as Banda on Saturday held a press conference, flanked by the army and police chiefs, where she called a cabinet meeting for later in the day.
“I don’t think there’s any way we can discuss who is caretaker (president) and who is not,” she said. “The constitution is prevailing right now.””The paramount issue to be discussed at the cabinet meeting is on the funeral of the father of the nation,” Banda said.
“In the meantime, I call upon all Malawians to remain calm and to keep the peace during this time of bereavement,” she added.
Malawi declared 10 days of mourning from Saturday, with flags at half-staff and radios ordered to play “sombre” music. Banda said government was speaking with Mutharika’s family about the return of his body from South Africa and the funeral arrangements.
Banda is now leader of her own People’s Party and a fierce critic of Mutharika, accusing him of running the economy into the ground.
Mutharika, a former World Bank economist who first came to power in 2004, was re-elected with a sweeping majority in 2009 as president of the poor southern African country.
But he increasingly came under fire for attempts to rein in the media and to shield the government from public criticism.
His feuds with donors and lenders such as the International Monetary Fund have hamstrung the economy in this aid-dependent nation. Now Malawi is suffering from shortages of foreign currency that have left it unable to import enough fuel.
When public frustration erupted into nationwide street protests in July, police shot 19 people dead. Last month, a broad coalition of rights groups called on Mutharika to resign.