Correction: The April 7 obituary of Bingu wa Mutharika, president of Malawi, incorrectly reported the year of his birth. He was born in 1934, not 1924. In addition, the government of Malawi issued a statement saying he was pronounced dead at a military hospital in South Africa, not at a hospital in Blantyre, Malawi.

Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika waves to supporters of his party in 2009 in Lilongwe during an electoral campaign. Mutharika died early on April 6 hours after the 78-year-old suffered a heart attack, a hospital source said. (AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Bingu wa Mutharika, an obscure economic minister who became the president of Malawi in 2004 and later brought his country to the brink of failure, died April 5. He was 78.

Physicians who treated the president confirmed to the Associated Press that he died after a heart attack. The government of Malawi issued a statement saying that Mr. Mutharika was pronounced dead at a military hospital in South Africa. Reports from Malawian news media suggested that a succession struggle was imminent.

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.

Mr. Mutharika exacerbated the mess when he refused to devalue the local currency, the kwacha, ignoring the advice of International Monetary Fund experts.

The crisis reached its apogee in July 2011, when 19 demonstrators marching for reforms were killed by Malawian troops and 275 citizens were arrested.

Mr. Mutharika, whose nickname was Chitsulo cha Njanji, which means “railroad track of steel,” vowed that he would crush the rebellion.

“I’ll go after you!” Mr. Mutharika said on state-run television. “Even if you hide in holes, I’ll smoke you out!”

Amid the turbulence, Britain froze its aid and the United States suspended a critical $350 million grant.

At his death, Mr. Mutharika may be said to have improved the plight of average Malawians, but only minimally. Today, the average life expectancy is 52 years, and 11 percent of the country is infected with HIV/AIDS.

Brightson Webster Ryson Thom was born Feb. 24, 1934, in the Thyolo district of what was then the British protectorate of Nyasaland. He changed his name to Bingu wa Mutharika in the 1960s after Malawi attained independence from Britain.

Mr. Mutharika studied at the University of Delhi in India, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics.

He claimed to have received a doctorate in economics from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles. In 2004, a Government Accountability Office report concluded that Pacific Western was a “diploma mill” that charged a “flat fee for a degree.”

Mr. Mutharika worked for the United Nations from 1978 to 1990 before becoming secretary general of Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, a trade group. He was dismissed in 1997, however, after the group found that Mr. Mutharika lacked “the vision to take COMESA into the next century.”

Back in Malawi, he became a deputy governor of the Reserve Bank before his appointment to Muluzi’s cabinet.

His first wife, Ethel Mutharika, died in 2007. Survivors include his second wife, Callista Chimombo, a former tourism minister, and four children from his first marriage.

As president, Mr. Mutharika lived in a 300-room palace built by the dictator Banda. In 2010, he became chairman of the African Union, succeeding Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi, who called Mr. Mutharika “my brother.”