Controversial Malawi president dies

Sat, Apr 7, 2012, 01:00

THE CONTROVERSIAL president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, has reportedly died at a hospital in the capital Lilongwe, hours after suffering a massive heart attack.

Local and international media reported that sources in government and at Kamuzu Central Hospital had confirmed the former World Bank economist had fallen ill late on Thursday, but died despite medical attention.

Official confirmation of the death of Mr Mutharika (78) has yet to materialise, but state radio reported yesterday that he had been flown to South Africa.

The Malawian Nyasa Times suggested that moving Mr Mutharika to South Africa was done to buy the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) time to get its house in order. However, Reuters news agency said the president had been moved because his body could not be refrigerated at the local hospital due to power cuts.

Mr Mutharika’s sudden death will likely raise tensions among the country’s political leaders, as according to the constitution vice-president Joyce Banda, who fell out with the president two years ago, is next in line to run the country.

In 2010, Ms Banda was expelled from the ruling party. The president’s brother, foreign minister Peter Mutharika, was elevated to the position of Mr Mutharika’s preferred successor when the DPP chose him as its presidential candidate for the 2014 elections.

How the transfer of power in Malawi takes place will be keenly watched by the international donor community, including the Irish Government, which donates about €10 million annually.

After coming to power in 2004, Mr Mutharika was widely praised for his approach to government, where among other things he helped agriculture to get off the ground by providing subsidies for small farmers.

He went on to preside over a seven-year economic boom that made Malawi one of the world’s fastest-growing countries.

However, since being re-elected in 2009, his popularity had begun to wane. He has been criticised for his autocratic approach to government and blamed for the country’s present economic woes.

There is a chronic shortages of fuel, food and foreign exchange in Malawi, while Mr Mutharika’s ongoing disagreements with a number of international aid donors has left the treasury shorn of much-needed funds. Up to 40 per cent of the country’s annual budget comes from donor aid.

Last year, Mr Mutharika expelled the British high commissioner, Fergus Cochrane-Dyet, for allegedly saying in an embassy cable that the president could not tolerate criticism. In response Britain, Malawi’s largest donor, expelled the Malawian envoy to London and cut direct aid.