Eulogy for a Dictator? Malawi's Bingu wa Mutharika

President Bingu wa Mutharika, who died during his eighth year as President of Malawi, was not many things.  He was not humble.  He was not diplomatic.  He was not a teetotaler.  He was not unflappable or tolerant of criticism.  He was not a champion of free expression.  Yet, he was also not the archetype African dictator of Hollywood movies.

President Mutharika, like many Africans, was a man of humble beginnings who fought for a better life.  Born the son of educators in 1934, Mutharika excelled at underserved primary schools in Southern Malawi before earning a spot at heralded Dedza Secondary School, an incubator of Malawian intelligentsia in Central Malawi.  In 1956, he graduated with a Grade A Cambridge Overseas School Leaving Certificate, and in 1964, shortly after Malawi gained independence, President Hastings Banda (Malawi’s autocratic “President for Life”) selected Mutharika for a continuing education program in India.  Mutharika subsequently earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics in India and a PhD in development economics from Pacific Western University in California (now California Miramar University).

A self-styled “economist in chief”, Mutharika held several bureaucratic positions before wining the presidency in 2004. He worked as a civil servant in Malawi and Zambia, a loan officer at the World Bank, Director of Trade and Development Finance for the United Nations Economic Commission of Africa, Minister of Economic Planning and Development for the Republic of Malawi, and Secretary General of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), a free trade area with twenty member states.

Mutharika's casket drapped in national flag

In 1992, Mutharika cofounded the United Democratic Front (UDF), the political party instrumental in forcing elections that ousted Banda after thirty-three years in power.  In 1999, Mutharika ran for President of Malawi but came in last place.  He eventually joined the UDF government of Bakili Muluzi, Malawi’s first democratically elected president, and won the presidency in 2004 as Muluzi’s handpicked successor.  In 2005, however, Mutharika and Muluzi parted ways in the first of several nasty, high profile spats between Mutharika and prominent public figures.  Mutharika responded by starting the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and was reelected President on the DPP ticket in a 2009 landslide victory.

Like all people, President Mutharika was a product of his environment.  An African nationalist, he endured thirty years of brutality, racism, and gross inequity under British colonialism. After Malawian independence, he witnessed the Cold War-era struggle for African identity in which Western powers rewarded corrupt and brutal, anti-communist regimes with largesse while facilitating the demise leaders perceived to be socialist troublemakers, the structural adjustment programs of the 70s and 80s that left many African governments drowning in debt, and the foreign aid, trade and investment programs of today that peddle influence for poverty alleviation, often enriching donors as much as recipients.

The second president of a nascent democracy with an AIDS pandemic and seventy-five percent of citizens living on less than one dollar per day, Mutharika spent much of his time and money staving off challenges to his aid-bloated regime (forty percent of the government budget).  He and his political rivals – President Muluzi initially and Vice President Joyce Banda recently – hammered each other with scandalous allegations, legal challenges, and calls for resignation.  A resourceful, if not sensationalist, press used Malawi’s expanding telecommunications capacity to lampoon his missteps – the palatial mansion built in Thyolo (his home district), the presidential jet purportedly needed for international travel, and persistent accusations of arrogance, patronage and graft.  Western donors rattled the purse strings, questioning his commitment to democracy, gay rights and free-market economics.

Yet, Mutharika achieved much as president. Malawi’s Ministry of Finance estimated that from 2005 to 2009, Malawians living below the poverty line fell from fifty-two to forty percent during a period of impressive economic growth, and in 2010, Mutharika became the first Malawian chairperson of the African Union.  Spurning advice from the International Monetary Fund, and mindful of Malawi’s devastating 2002 famine, Mutharika invested precious foreign exchange in fertilizer subsidies for smallholder farmers, a decision that led to record yields, food security, and praise from around the world.  When Western institutions critiqued this policy as anti-free market, Mutharika quickly reminded them that America and EU countries subsidize indigenous farmers, flooding international markets with artificially cheap agricultural products that undermine trade opportunities for Africa.

Although such defiance marked Mutharika’s greatest hour, it was also his undoing.  Despite successes, Mutharika will be remembered for kunyada (pride or arrogance in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s national languages).  Channeling his friend Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Mutharika railed against Western interference and eventually told donors to “go to hell”.  With support from pro-Western Malawians, donors called his bluff, closed the aid taps and waited.

To fill the resulting budget vacuum, Mutharika embraced aid from China and Iran, but it was not enough.  As tobacco (Malawi’s main export commodity) dropped in price, Mutharika became more obstinate, and Malawi plunged from a donor darling to a fuel-starved pariah.  When citizens took to the streets to protest fuel shortages and call for Mutharika’s resignation, he orchestrated a government crackdown that killed nineteen people.

So, who was Bingu wa Mutharika?  History will tell, but he was not a stereotype or convenient narrative.  As Malawi mourns and celebrates Mutharika’s passing, we should appreciate his achievements, heed his failures and look forward to a new era of openness, engagement and promise for the Warm Heart of Africa.


About the Author:  Michael Buckler was raised in LaPlata, Maryland. He graduated from Cornell University in 1996 and Duke Law School in 2000. In 2006, after working as a patent litigator for several years (mostly as outside counsel for Microsoft), he left his law firm to become a Peace Corps Volunteer. From 2006 to 2008, he lived and taught at a secondary school in rural Malawi, and upon his return to the States, he authored From Microsoft To Malawi:  Learning on the Front Lines as a Peace Corps Volunteer (Hamilton Books 2011). He now lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the National Park Service as an environmental planner.  In his spare time, he writes and speaks about international development and serves on the board of Friends of Malawi, a non-profit organization composed of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in Malawi. 

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