BLANTYRE, Malawi — Malawi has known rule by Britain and by a mercurial dictator. Over the last few days, however, it wasn't clear who was leading this impoverished southern African country, as doctors disclosed Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika had died but the government insisted he was only ill.
In the end, Joyce Banda, who had held onto her post of vice president despite falling out with Mutharika, moved to take charge Saturday, holding a news conference at which she was flanked by Cabinet ministers, the army commander national police chief and announced a period of mourning for her predecessor.
The Malawi government only confirmed the president's death on Saturday, two days after the leader of the impoverished southern African country died and a day after it was announced by doctors.
The delay in announcing Mutharika's death and allowing Banda to step in led to speculation politicians were squabbling over succession. Banda may have to contend with powerful enemies at home as she tries to lead her country out of economic crisis and repair relations with international donors with whom Mutharika had clashed.
Gift Mwakhawa, president of the Law Society of Malawi, is convinced some members of Cabinet tried to stop Banda from taking over, even though Malawi's constitution makes it clear power should pass to the vice president if the president dies.
"Most Malawians wanted the constitution to prevail. The security forces wanted the constitution to prevail. And the constitution has prevailed," Mwakhawa said in an interview.
Under the constitution, Banda will serve out Mutharika's term, which ends in early 2014. Mutharika first won office in 2004, and was re-elected in 2009.
Doctors, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters, said the 78-year-old Mutharika died Thursday, before his body was flown to South Africa. Taking the body to South Africa was apparently done to buy time for politicians to work out a succession plan.
Local and international media had carried reports of his death since Thursday, and Malawians had furiously discussed it among themselves and on social media platforms.
When Mutharika first came to power, he was backed by his predecessor, Bakili Muluzi. A feud ensued after Mutharika had Muluzi charged with corruption and fraud. Mutharika left the ruling party to establish his own. Political bickering between the two men led to extensive legislative delays, rioting, a failed impeachment bid, and accusations of coup and assassination plots.
John Kapito, chairman of the Malawi Human Rights Commission, said more bickering could lie ahead. Men who had gained power under Mutharika may not give it up without a political fight. Among them is Mutharika's brother, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Arthur Mutharika. President Mutharika had favored his brother after clashing with Banda, naming him as acting president when he traveled. The president did not have time to consolidate the succession before his heart attack, an event that took many by surprise.
The late president's party named his brother as its president on Friday, though it did not then confirm the president had died.
"She will be tested," Kapito said of Banda.
Banda, 62, takes over a country in which shortages of sugar, fuel and other commodities have created long, restive lines at shops and service stations.
Mutharika, a former World Bank official once heralded for his economic stewardship, had in recent years been accused of mismanagement and of trampling on human rights.
Anti-government demonstrations across Malawi last year were met with an unprecedented security crackdown that resulted in at least 19 deaths.
Last month, a U.S. aid agency that rewards good governance suspended $350 million worth of assistance to Malawi. The International Monetary Fund describes its program with Malawi as "off-track." Mutharika had ignored IMF advice to devalue the country's currency.
Kapito, the human rights activists, said he hoped Malawians and foreign donors will rally around Banda, wife of a retired chief justice.
Mwakhawa, of the law society, said Banda "was one of the people who advocated for adherence to the rule of law and sound economic policies while she was an estranged vice president. We expect her to practice what she's preached."
"Life President" Hastings Kamuzu Banda led Malawi to independence from Britain, only to impose an oppressive rule from 1963 to 1994. Whims that reflected his puritanical streak were law. The U.S.-trained physician and former Presbyterian church elder always attired in a dark suit and Homburg hat, banned women from wearing pants and short skirts, and banned long hair on men.
Joyce Banda, who is not related to the dictator, recently joined protest marches in this still conservative country in support of women's right to dress as they please.
Hastings Kamuzu Banda lost power in the country's first multiparty election in 1994 and died three years later.
Bryson reported from Johannesburg