Obituary: Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika

Ex-World Bank economist first known as champion of poor, but later blamed for Malawi’s economic woes, has died at 78.

Bingu wa Mutharika
Bingu wa Mutharika presided over a boom-and-bust period for Malawi [Reuters]

Bingu wa Mutharika was a polarising figure in Malawi’s history, often praised for his efforts to end corruption, but also lambasted by critics for being arrogant and autocratic.

Elected president in 2004, Mutharika was re-elected to power in 2009 with a resounding victory based on his reputation as a champion of the poor.

Mutharika died of a heart attack on Friday at age 78. The Malawi government has yet to release an official statement.

During his first term, Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, earned praise for helping millions of the country’s poor farmers by subsidising agricultural products.

Yet international donors warned that the government could not afford such a large-scale programme, and his relations with the public began to sour in his second term.

WikiLeaks criticism

Mutharika’s second term was plagued by economic uncertainty and political infighting that caused disdain and anger toward the government.

In 2011, popular protests over rising prices and fuel shortages resulted in riots and looting in which at least 19 people were killed.

In April 2011, Mutharika expelled the British ambassador to Malawi over criticism revealed in a leaked diplomatic cable published by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks.

In response, the UK halted all aid to Malawi on the grounds that the Malawian government had mishandled the economy.

Political rivalries were also a hallmark of his second term.

In 2010, he expelled his deputy Joyce Banda from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), although she remained his vice president.

Many saw Mutharika’s decision to remove Banda as a way for him to groom his brother Peter Mutharika, the country’s foreign minister, as the DPP presidential candidate in 2014 elections.

Family life

Born as Ryson Webster Thom in the tea-growing district of Thyolo in 1934, the schoolmaster’s son adopted the African name of Bingu Wa Mutharika during the 1960s when pan-Africanism was sweeping the continent.

Mutharika served as a civil servant during the dictatorship of Hastings Banda, who had led the country to independence from Britain in 1964.

Mutharika later fled the country fearing a political crackdown. His self-imposed exile took him to Zambia, India and the US, where he obtained a doctorate in economics.

After the election defeat of Banda in 1994, and the restoration of multi-party democracy, Mutharika returned to Malawi as a leading member of the United Democratic Front, which by 2004 became the governing party of Malawi under the presidency of Bakili Muluzi.

Mutharika resigned from the party in 2002 amid disagreements with Muluzi, founding the DPP and winning the presidency in 2004 elections.

Mutharika fathered four children by his Zimbabwe-born wife Ethel, who died in 2007. In 2010, he remarried Callista Chapola-Chimombo, a former tourism minister.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies