A small, landlocked nation of 16 million people in southeastern Africa, Malawi has long been considered one of the world’s poorest countries. During the mid-2000s, starving Malawians were known to eat grasshoppers in order to live.
For a few years, Mr. Mutharika changed all of that.
“He presided over some of the most successful economic growth probably since the early 1990s,” said Peter VonDoepp, a professor of African politics at the University of Vermont. “The second thing he was known for was the shrinking of the democratic space and the decline of governance in the country.”
A one-time World Bank economist and United Nations trade expert, Mr. Mutharika had spent much of his life beyond Malawi’s borders, living in self-imposed exile during the brutal three-
decade rule of Hastings Kamuzu Banda, beginning in the early 1960s.
Mr. Mutharika returned to Malawi after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994 and was made an economic minister in 2002 by President Bakili Muluzi.
VonDoepp said that Mr. Mutharika “came to power somewhat by accident.”
After a failed effort to amend the constitution to seek a third term in office, Muluzi annointed Mr. Mutharika to succeed him. Mr. Mutharika won the multi-party election in 2004 with 35 percent of the vote.
“Because he wanted to remain top dog in the ruling party,” VonDoepp said, “Muluzi appointed one of his most obscure and most politically unskilled cabinet minister to serve as the party candidate for the United Democratic Front, with the idea that Mutharika would be a puppet.”
But Muluzi’s plans failed.
Mr. Mutharika began a campaign to rid the government of corrupt officials and prosecuted members of the old regime. He courted Western officials and received hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the United States and Britain.
The president helped subsidize fertilizer supplies for Malawi’s poor farmers, leading to a six-year span when the economy grew rapidly. Stocks of burley tobacco, Malawi’s leading export, soared. A food shortage that had threatened millions of Malawians was reversed with a surplus of maize.
Mr. Mutharika won reelection in 2009 with 66 percent of the vote.
His grip on power began to weaken, however, during his second term. He became increasingly intolerant of outside critics, VonDoepp said, and passed laws that limited freedom of the press. Critics were thrown in jail.
Malawi’s stores of foreign currency started to disappear, which curtailed the government’s ability to pay for fuel and led to shortages. The most vibrant industry was sent into turmoil when global prices of tobacco dropped.