Malawian Vice President Joyce Banda was sworn in today as president, pledging to unite the nation after Bingu wa Mutharika’s death sparked U.S. concern the southern African nation was headed toward a power struggle.
Banda, who was next in line to assume power according to the nation’s laws, became Africa’s second female president in a ceremony in Lilongwe, the capital. Mutharika, 78, suffered a heart attack on April 5 at State House in the capital, and died at One Military Hospital in South Africa the same day, Bright Msaka, chief secretary of the government, said in an e-mailed statement today.
“I thank you for the respect you have shown to follow the constitution,” Banda told lawmakers at Parliament House in comments broadcast on state-owned Zodiak radio. “Let us go into the future with hope. There will be no room for revenge. I just hope we shall stand united.”
Malawi’s refusal to acknowledge the president’s death yesterday as Kenya and other governments issued condolences, led the U.S. government to say it was concerned about the delay in installing Banda as president according to the constitution.
Yesterday, the nation’s information minister told reporters that Banda was not eligible to be president because she had been thrown out of Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party in 2010.
“There is no need to swear her in,” John Gift Mwakhwawa, president of the Malawi Law Society, said in a telephone interview earlier today. Malawi is “not in a crisis. The law is clear, Joyce Banda is president.”
The U.S. “remains committed to our partnership with the people of Malawi,” according to e-mailed comments from the U.S. embassy in South Africa after Malawi’s government confirmed Mutharika’s death today.
“Despite the announcement that constitutional protocol will be adhered to, it is probable that the DPP will call for early elections in a bid to cement its grip on power,” London-based Control Risks said on its website today.
A former World Bank economist, Mutharika was elected president in 2004 and won plaudits at home and abroad for ending years of periodic food shortages. During his first five years in office, the economy of the southern African nation, the world’s biggest producer of burley tobacco, used mainly for cigarettes, grew an average 6.6 percent annually. Mutharika won 66 percent of the vote and a second five-year term in 2009.
His reputation was damaged last July, when his security forces killed 19 people protesting fuel shortages and rising food costs. The U.S. and U.K. suspended aid to Malawi, which relies on donor funds to finance as much as 40 percent of its budget.
The government was forced to rein in spending, while the central bank devalued Malawi’s kwacha by 10 percent in August to address the foreign-exchange shortages. The economy depends on tobacco, tea and sugar for export income.
Mutharika refused to bow to demands from good-governance groups to step down or call a referendum on his popularity, saying on March 22 that he was ready to fight those who challenged his authority. Opposition to his rule continued until he became ill.
There will be 10 days of mourning, state-owned MBC Radio said in announcing Mutharika’s death.
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia is the only other female head of government in Africa.