There was confusion and concern but very little public mourning yesterday amid unconfirmed reports of the death of Malawi's controversial President from a heart attack.
Government officials insisted Bingu wa Mutharika, 78, was being treated for cardiac arrest, while local media, citing hospital doctors, said he had slipped into a coma.
Malawi has sunk into economic crisis, while its leader's increasingly abrasive style has isolated him internationally and seen him denounced at home as an autocrat.
Police were deployed in the capital, Lilongwe, last night as officials said Mr Mutharika's condition was "very critical" and he was being airlifted to South Africa.
The former World Bank economist and one-time darling of Western donors has watched his reputation crumble of late. He responded to criticism of his leadership style by expelling a British diplomat, prompting Malawi's biggest donor to revise its aid programme. Last year, the increasingly erratic leader reacted to peaceful demonstrations by unleashing his security forces, and 20 civilians were killed.