Malawi's new president moves to heal political divide

Justine Gerardy
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Malawi President Joyce Banda delivers a speech

Malawi's new President Joyce Banda delivers a speech at her inauguration. Banda offered the conciliatory words following two days of political intrigue in which Mutharika's inner circle tried to block her assuming the post, which fell to her as vice president under the terms of the constitution

Malawi's Joyce Banda on Saturday told supporters there was no room for revenge as she was sworn in as Africa's second only female head of state in modern times after the death of the divisive Bingu wa Mutharika.

Banda offered the conciliatory words following two days of political intrigue in which Mutharika's inner circle tried to block her assuming the post, which fell to her as vice president under the terms of the constitution.

Thunderous applause and joyous singing broke out as Banda completed her presidential oath. She then called for a moment of silence for the man she hailed as a father to the nation.

But she did not shy away from the divisions provoked by Mutharika, who had expelled her from the ruling party.

"I want all of us to move into the future with hope and with that spirit of one-ness and unity," she said.

"I just sincerely hope that there is no room for revenge. I just sincerely hope that we shall stand united," she added.

Mutharika died after a heart attack on Thursday amid calls for his resignation following deadly anti-government protests last year accusing him of wrecking the economy and trampling on democracy.

Following her expulsion from Mutharika's Democratic Progressive Party, she formed her own People's Party -- a move that the late president's allies had argued should disqualify her from succeeding him.

But amid pressure from Western and African powers for a peaceful and constitutional transition, Banda appeared Saturday flanked by the army and police chiefs to call a special cabinet meeting and assert her authority.

"I would like you to know that we felt the Holy Spirit in that room, and I would like you all to know that it was a good meeting", she said.

"For me that was significant, because that is the starting point for healing the wounds of this nation."

"I want to sincerely thank Malawians and all people living in Malawi for the respect of the law shown by the peaceful transition of the presidency," Banda added.

Soldiers meanwhile guarded the parliament grounds and took over security at state radio and television stations, as the army publicly backed the transition between civilian leaders.

Mutharika's face still beamed down from billboards on the capital's streets, with his portrait on walls in government offices and private businesses.

Malawi declared 10 days of mourning, and had yet to announce plans for his funeral.

Banda is the second African female head of state in modern times after Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

She faces the challenge of leading a country whose parliament is dominated by Mutharika's party, at the head of a cabinet that includes ministers vocally opposed to her.

"There was quite a lot of tension and we are glad that it has turned out to be peaceful," said DPP lawmaker Kezzie Msukwa.

"The party has taken it painfully. However, I think everybody now agrees that we have to go the way that we are going."

Mutharika, a former World Bank economist who first came to power in 2004, was re-elected with a sweeping majority in 2009.

But he increasingly came under fire for attempts to rein in the media and to shield the government from public criticism.

His feuds with donors and lenders such as the International Monetary Fund have hamstrung the economy in this aid-dependent nation.

Now Malawi is suffering from shortages of foreign currency that have left it unable to import enough fuel.

When public frustration erupted into nationwide street protests in July, police shot dead 19 people. Last month, a broad coalition of rights groups called on Mutharika to resign.

The international community however was generous in its tributes to Mutharika.

The African Union said Saturday that Africa had "lost one of its great sons"

"He was rightfully credited with boosting Malawi's economy, especially in the agricultural sector," AU Commission chief Jean Ping said in a message of condolence sent to new President Joyce Banda.

A statement from the European Union remembered him "as a champion of food security in Africa and for his success in achieving national food security in Malawi."

And the Commonwealth expressed its condolences, calling for a "peaceful and constitutional way forward" in a statement Saturday.