Malawi's president, Bingu wa Mutharika, is reported to have collapsed and died from a heart attack. Photograph: Alexander Joe/AFP
Malawi was facing a dangerous power struggle on Friday as the government refused to confirm widespread reports that president Bingu wa Mutharika had died from a heart attack.
The 78-year-old was taken to hospital in the capital, Lilongwe, on Thursday after collapsing but was dead on arrival, medical and government sources told Reuters. His body was flown to South Africabecause Malawi's energy crisis is so severe that the hospital would have been unable to carry out a proper autopsy or even keep his body refrigerated, they added. In South Africa he would be embalmed.
But Banda was expelled from the ruling Democratic Progressive party in 2010 in a row over succession. She set up her own People's party and recently told the BBC she had not spoken to Mutharika for more than a year.
Mutharika launched a constitutional court case to determine whether a sitting vice-president can lead an opposition political party that fields candidates against the ruling party. He also appeared to be grooming his brother Peter, who is foreign minister and has deputised in his absence, to replace him.
On Friday Malawi's "inner circle" of senior ministers – including Peter Mutharika – was reportedly holding meetings on how to thwart Banda's ascent. They were said to be seeking to convene an emergency parliament session that would change the constitution to allow for the selection of a new leader until elections due in 2014.
Malawian lawyers told the Guardian that the question of Banda ascending to the state house was "automatic". Sources said that when chief justice Lovemore Munlo was approached he told them it was impossible not to give power to Banda, saying this would be the same as staging a coup.
Retired president Bakili Muluzi, who has been fighting a corruption trial for the past four years instigated by Mutharika, said it was automatic the vice-president should take power until 2014.
"I am calling for a constitutional order for continued peace and order," Muluzi told journalists at his residence in Limbe, outside the commercial hub Blantyre. "The laws of Malawi are very clearly that the vice-president takes over. "
He added: "We have to avoid a situation where there is disorder. Let us follow the constitution. We have no choice but follow the constitution. It's very important that there must be peace and calm."
Civil society groups urged a smooth transition. Benedicto Kondowe, executive director of the Civil Society Education Coalition, said: "The constitution very clearly states that the vice-president shall assume power for the remaining term of office. I don't think the ruling party will manoeuvre because there is no law that can support such a process. I don't think Malawians are ready for any attempt to bend the constitution."
Banda could bring a welcome shift of direction, Kondowe added. "For sure I think there might be a number of changes. It is not an easy job looking at the political and economic situation, but we hope she may be able to steer the country to what Malawians want.
"She has a challenge to transform the image of the country. Regionally and internationally it has been greatly affected. She needs to restore donor confidence in Malawi as a peace loving country."
Mutharika is a former World Bank official once heralded for presiding over an unprecedented run of boom years in one of the world's poorest countries. He first came to power in 2004 and was re-elected with an overwhelming mandate five years later.
But things turned sour and Mutharika was accused of mismanaging the economy and seeking to crush dissent, with rights activists claiming they had been assaulted and intimidated. At least 18 people died when anti-government protests turned violent last year. In his final months he became ever more suspicious and paranoid, telling the Guardian that "foreign enemies" were striving to oust him.
He alienated foreign donors who contributed 40% of the national budget. A leaked diplomatic cable from the then-British high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, described him as "becoming ever more autocratic and intolerant of criticism", resulting in tit-for-tat expulsions.
The country now has chronic shortages of foreign exchange, medicines and fuel, with drivers forced to abandon their cars overnight in queues at petrol stations.
As rumours of the president's death swept the capital on Thursday night, there were pockets of drunken jubilation among locals. "I am yet to see anyone shedding a tear for Bingu," Martin Mlenga, a businessman, told Reuters. "We all wished him dead, sorry to say that."
Mutharika has been reported dead before. In an interview with the Guardian in February, he recalled: "Someone said Bingu is dead: government officials are going there to bring his coffin. So I when I came here, I apologised and said, 'In my haste to come to Malawi I forgot my casket at the airport; the casket is coming' … this is supposed to be freedom of the press. It is not. This is freedom to lie."