Bingu wa Mutharika: President of Malawi whose reign brought economic ruin

There were signs that Mutharika’s Green Revolution would be ruinous – even before his re-election

Death has delivered Malawi of Bingu wa Mutharika, a former World Bank economist whose eight-year presidency ruined the southern African country's finances, sparked a diplomatic spat with Britain and even prompted pop star Madonna to scale back her charity work.

His death on Thursday at the age of 78, after suffering a heart attack in the capital, Lilongwe, prompted fears of an ugly succession battle between the brother he had groomed to succeed him, foreign minister Peter Mutharika, and Joyce Banda, the hugely popular vice-president who is constitutionally entitled to take over. Amid fears of civil unrest, former president Bakili Muluzi yesterday called for peace and order. "The laws are very clear that the vice president takes over," he told a press conference.

Mutharika was born of teacher parents in a Church of Scotland mission in the southern tea-growing district of Thyolo. In 1962, a year after Malawi gained independence from Britain, he entered the civil service. In 1964, after a fast-track degree in economics in India, President Hastings Banda appointed him to head the civil service.

But after a cabinet crisis in 1964, he fled Malawi in circumstances that remain unclear. He travelled to Zambia, India and the United States and in keeping with the pan-Africanist wave of the time, reverted from his birth name, Ryson Webster Thom, to his father's surname. He later claimed he had changed his name to evade spies working to silence opponents of President Banda.

He spent two decades as an international civil servant, working initially as a loans officer for the World Bank. He was director of trade and finance at the Addis Ababa-based United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. He also served as secretary-general of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa).

While in exile in 1992, he founded the United Democratic Front – an opposition movement that grew into a political party. Mutharika stood in the 1999 presidential elections but finished last among five candidates. In 2004, after failing a bid for a third term, President Muluzi backed him to take over and he won the presidential elections. A year after being elected, Mutharika left the UDF and created his own Democratic People's Party (DPP).

Initially a darling of the donor community, Mutharika's first term was marked by good rains and bumper harvests. Amid great fanfare and claiming he would teach the world's development economists a lesson, he created an agricultural input subsidy programme which increased access to seeds and fertiliser for small farmers.

After years of being reliant on food aid, Malawi in 2005 produced a grain surplus of more than 500,000 tonnes. The country repeated the feat in 2007 and increased its surplus in 2008. At the UN General Assembly, Mutharika proclaimed in 2008 that his "Green Revolution" was a recipe for "Africa to feed the world". To prove his point, he ordered Malawi to send 150 tonnes of rice to Haiti after that country's earthquake in January 2010. In the same year, he was awarded a string of honorary degrees – including from the University of Strathclyde – as well as the UN Special Millennium Development Goal Award, for "success towards eliminating hunger by enhancing food security".

But even before Mutharika's landslide re-election in 2009, observers and foreign diplomats in the country had been warning that the Green Revolution would be ruinous for the small economy, dependent on donor support for 40 per cent of its budget.

As foreign currency ran out, fuel shortages, power cuts and rising unemployment sparked growing civil unrest. In July 2011 at least 19 demonstrators were killed when police opened fire with live ammunition on a protest against the rising cost of living. Mutharika called the protesters "agents of Satan".

The demonstration came a few weeks after Malawi's darkest hour since independence, when its biggest foreign donor, Britain, ceased direct aid payments. The decision had followed a diplomatic spat prompted by a leaked cable in which British High Commissioner Fergus Cochrane-Dyet was reported to have said that Mutharika could not tolerate criticism.

Last year, Madonna also scaled back the work of her charity, Raising Malawi, which had been providing direct support for schools and orphanages for the hundreds of thousands of children in the country who have lost their parents to Aids. Madonna now channels her support to Malawi through Build On, a Connecticut charity that builds schools all over the world.

Since winning his second term, Mutharika had expended much energy on sidelining his popular number two, Mrs Banda – a women's and child's rights activist. He expelled her from the DPP last year after she denounced the shooting of demonstrators. He also handed many of her official functions to his second wife, Callista Chimombo, a former tourism minister whom he married last year, and to his brother, Peter, the foreign minister.

Malawi's short-term stability now rests with its military and police, who until now have proven loyal to the Mutharika clan. The opposition Nyasa Times said yesterday that Mutharika's inner circle had bought time after his death by claiming he was still alive when he was sent to Johannesburg on Thursday. But it now appears increasingly as though the president was already dead and the flight to Johannesburg was a time-buying exercise.

Last night, soldiers remained deployed outside Mrs Banda's residence and Peter Mutharika's whereabouts were not known.

Alex Duval Smith

 

Bingu wa Mutharika, politician: born Thyolo, Nyasaland (now Malawi) 24 February 1934; married twice (four children); died Lilongwe, Malawi 5 April 2012.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
art
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
News
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Soft Developer (4.0, C#, Windows Services, Sockets, LINQ, WCF)

£65000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: .NET Developer (4.0, C#, Windows ...

C# Developer -Winforms, VB6 - Trading Systems - Woking

£1 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading financial software house with its He...

C #Programmer (.Net 4.0/4.5/ C#) -Hertfordshire-Finance

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: C #Developer (.Net 4.0/4.5/ C#, A...

JQuery Developer JQuery, UI, Tomcat, Java - Woking

£1 per annum: Harrington Starr: JQuery Developer JQuery, UI, Tomcat, Java - Tr...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home