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No coup here: Malawi successfully transfers power

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Mabvuto Banda/Reuters

(Read caption) Malawian Vice President Joyce Banda addresses a media conference in the capital Lilongwe, Malawi, April 7.

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•  A version of this post appeared on the blog "Africa Works." The views expressed are the author's own.

After the sudden death, by heart attack, of Malawi’s 78-year president, Bingu wa Mutharika, earlier this month, Malawians anxiously suffered several days of uncertainty. First, the government would not immediately proclaim the president dead. Having been flown to South Africa for medical attention, Mutharika seemed to have gone missing rather than ceasing to exist. The confusion, of course, was ultimately explained by the rules of succession in Malawi, which called for vice president, Joyce Banda, to assume executive power. Not only was Banda a women in a Malawi riddled with casual sexism and long traditions [of] patriarchal behavior, she was also a critic of Mutharika, a former World Bank official who seemingly did the impossible in managing an economic revival but tarnished his reputation by displaying increasingly autocratic behavior.

Mutharika’s death, then, had the potential to plunge Malawi, a small and oddly-shaped country in southern Africa that has often flirted with “state failure” over its 50-year history, into crisis. The question of whether Malawi should even be country – in colonial times Malawi, then known as Nysasland — was a thinly-populated British protectorate where a motley collection of whites and Asians controlled the economy, which mainly consisted of tobacco and tea growing. No less a central figure than Hastings Banda, the president of Malawi on its independence in 1964, questioned whether this long, thin and heavily-rural jurisdiction, should simply be rolled into its much larger neighbor, Zambia, which during British rule was known as Northern Rhodesia.

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