Following the death from a heart attack of beleaguered leader Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s vice-president, Joyce Banda, has been sworn in as president on April 7th. She becomes southern Africa’s first female head of state, but Africa’s second after Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
Ms Banda, 62, who had been vice-president since 2009, was cheered and applauded before, during and after the ceremony. She is a longtime campaigner for women’s rights and better education and is now expected to run the country at least until scheduled elections take place in 2014.
The peaceful transition of power is a great relief in Malawi, where a political crisis seems to have been averted after the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika.
Mr Mutharika, 78, went into cardiac arrest on April 5th but his death was not confirmed for a few days, leading to fears his supporters were trying to manipulate the succession. Many Malawians blamed him for the current economic crisis. He was elected into office in 2004 and again in 2009, but in recent years he was accused of economic mismanagement, becoming autocratic, and souring relations with important donors – especially the United States and the United Kingdom – who then withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of much needed aid. Both his terms in office were mired in controversy said the BBC in its obituary with critics saying he had not so much run the country as run the country into the ground.
The country’s constitution stipulates the vice president is to take over leadership if the president dies but it was uncertain at first whether this would happen because Banda and Mutharika had fallen out in 2010. Although she retained the post of vice president, she was expelled from Mutharika’s political party and formed her own. Mutharika, meanwhile, appeared to be grooming his brother to replace to him.
There were reports of Malawians celebrating Mutharika’s death but the new President Banda ordered the nation’s flags to be flown at half-mast for a 10 day mourning period.
Ms Banda inherits a difficult task. Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, is prone to natural disasters and is facing critical fuel shortages and rising food prices. One of her first acts as president was to sack the chief of police, state media reported.