REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Malawi's vice president was sworn in as its new leader Saturday, ending a brief but dangerous tussle for power after the country’s increasingly authoritarian president died of a massive heart attack.
The new president, Joyce Banda, a longtime proponent of women's rights in one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world, had fallen out with her predecessor, Bingu we Mutharika. She vowed Saturday to uphold Malawi’s democratic constitution.
Under the country’s constitution, the vice president takes over after the death of a president. But officials delayed announcing Mutharika’s death for two days, as his inner circle struggled to cling to power, even naming Mutharika's younger brother, Peter wa Mutharika, as acting president.
In one outward sign on the power struggle, Information Minister Patricia Kaliati, called a news conference Friday flanked by several other ministers to say that Banda couldn't be president because she had left the ruling party and founded her own opposition party.
As Banda took office Saturday, she paid tribute to Mutharika, calling for 10 days of mourning.
She held a news conference Saturday flanked by army and police commanders, leaving no doubt that she had taken charge of the country. Ministers from Mutharika's Cabinet were ordered not to speak to the state-owned media unless cleared to do so by the military, according to local media reports.
Banda will rule until elections, due in 2014, and will appoint a new vice president.
Malawi's Nyasa Times reported that a group of ministers led by Peter wa Mutharika tried to subvert the constitution and exclude Banda from the leadership succession, but that other ministers opposed the plot.
One minister, Catherine Gotani Hara, gave a radio interview claiming that after Mutharika's death his brother called a Cabinet meeting at which his position as the future president was presented as a fait accompli.
“It was a meeting which seemed to have already agreed on Peter Mutharika taking over and nobody could rise to speak against this, since the situation was tense. Some of us feared for our security,” Hara said in the radio interview Saturday.
As the power struggle unfolded, the United States, Britain and the European Union called on Malawi to uphold its constitution.
Before his death, Mutharika, 78, had been under increasing pressure from opposition activists to stand down. His increasingly iron-fisted approach alarmed the West, which slashed aid to the impoverished country after 20 people were killed by police in anti-government demonstrations last July.
Banda, an outspoken critic of the president, may usher in a new era, restoring democratic freedoms that Mutharika had begun to whittle away.
If Banda is seen to be heading in the right direction, Western donors are likely to restore aid to Malawi, where 70% of the population survives on the equivalent of a dollar a day.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Joyce Banda signs a book at her inauguration as Malawi's new president, becoming the country's first female leader two days after the death of her predecessor. Credit: Stephane de Sakutin / AFP/Getty Images