Cape Town — Malawi's chief justice has told the country's government that it must obey the constitution and transfer power to Vice-President Joyce Banda, reports the Nyasa Times.
The newspaper reported on its website on Friday that following the death of President Bingu wa Mutharika after a heart attack on Thursday, Chief Justice Lovemore Munlo and the speaker of Parliament, Henry Chimunthu Banda, were approached about the succession by senior government officials.
"The chief justice told them it was impossible not to give power to Banda, saying this would be the same as staging a coup," the Times said.
Malawi's constitution says when there is a vacancy in the presidency, the vice-president assumes office for the remainder of the president's term. However, the government has so far failed to announce Mutharika's death, and the Times said its prolonged silence has raised fears of an attempt to subvert the constitution.
Vice-President Banda was never given a post in Mutharika's cabinet and, after falling out with Mutharika, was expelled from the ruling party. She subsequently formed her own party.
She told AllAfrica in an interview last September that her fallout with Mutharika was a result of her refusal to endorse Mutharika's plans that his brother, Foreign Minister Peter Mutharika, should succeed him.
In Washington, the Obama administration's top official on Africa, U.S.
Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson, weighed in on the crisis, telling Malawi's government: "Malawi's constitution lays out a clear path for succession and we expect it to be observed.
"We are concerned about the delay in the transfer of power. We trust that the vice-president, who is next in line, will be sworn in shortly."
The Maravi Post on Friday quoted a source close to the ruling party as saying an "inner circle... has been meeting secretly to thwart Joyce Banda from becoming president...
"They want to push forward the name of Peter Mutharika as acting president until 2014," when the next election is due.
Zokiak Online reported that the chairman of the Malawi Law Society, John Gift Mwakhwawa, also said Banda had to be sworn in: "It is not a matter of negotiation. The law is clear that the vice-president must take over."
The fact that she was a member of another party "doesn't matter, the fact is that she is the vice president and the law says she must take over", he added.