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Malawi's V.P. sworn in as president

Banda takes office amid succession uncertainty

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, was sworn in on Saturday in a brief ceremony in Lilongwe, the capital. Earlier Saturday, she presided over a Cabinet meeting and held a news conference at which she was flanked by Cabinet ministers, the army commander, national police chief.

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.

"I sincerely hope there is no room for revenge," Banda said after her inauguration in parliament. "We shall stand united."

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.