Lilongwe: Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika has died of a heart attack, medical and government sources said on Friday, and Washington expressed alarm at an apparent delay in swearing in his vice president as successor.
Few of Mutharika`s countrymen mourned a leader widely seen as an autocrat responsible for a stunning economic collapse.
The Constitution is clear that Vice President Joyce Banda should take over as head of state, although a smooth transition has not been assured since Banda was booted out of Mutharika`s ruling DPP party in 2010 after an argument about succession.
Mutharika appeared to have been grooming his brother Peter, the foreign minister, as his de facto successor.
"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," the US State Department said in a statement.
"We trust that the vice president who is next in line will be sworn in shortly."
At a news conference late on Friday, Banda, a women`s rights activist, refused to say whether she had become southern Africa`s first female head of state. She has however met diplomats and military chiefs, signalling she intends to take charge.
The 78-year-old Mutharika was rushed to hospital in Lilongwe on Thursday after collapsing, and was dead on arrival, the medical and government sources said.
His body was flown to South Africa because an energy crisis in the nation of 13 million was so severe the Lilongwe state hospital would have been unable to conduct a proper autopsy or even keep his body refrigerated, the sources said.
There was no immediate official confirmation of his death. State media said he had been flown to South Africa for treatment.
Many Malawians blame Mutharika personally for the economic woes, which stem ultimately from a diplomatic spat with former colonial power Britain a year ago.