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27.05.2019 Malawi

Malawi's Mutharika: law professor turned graft-accused president

By Jack McBrams
Peter Mutharika is a constitutional expert who has served as minister of justice, education, science and technology, and foreign affairs..  By AMOS GUMULIRA (AFP/File)
MAY 27, 2019 MALAWI
Peter Mutharika is a constitutional expert who has served as minister of justice, education, science and technology, and foreign affairs.. By AMOS GUMULIRA (AFP/File)

Malawi's President Peter Mutharika, 78, is a former Washington law professor with two successive election victories to his name and a political career clouded by claims of corruption, even treason.

He won his first term in a closely-contested poll in 2014 -- two years after his elder brother Bingu wa Mutharika died of a heart attack while serving as president.

Peter Mutharika was accused of trying to conceal his brother's death for nearly two days in a macabre attempt to prevent Joyce Banda -- then vice-president -- from assuming power.

As leader of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), he and other senior officials faced charges of treason for allegedly hiding the body, as well as counts of mutiny and conspiracy to commit a felony.

The charges were dropped when Mutharika took office.

After this bizarre start, his first term was dominated by food shortages, graft scandals and ballooning national debt, as well as concerns about his health.

A former law professor at Washington University, Mutharika is a constitutional expert who has served as minister of justice, of education, of science and technology, and of foreign affairs.

He actively entered Malawi politics in 2009 when he was elected to parliament.

He became president on a promise to tackle corruption after the "Cashgate" scandal in 2013 revealed massive looting from state coffers by government officials, ruling party figures and businessmen.

But Mutharika has himself been accused, and last year faced a public outcry over $200,000 he allegedly received from a businessman under investigation over a multi-million-dollar deal to supply food to the Malawi police.

His narrow election victory in last week's election was also hit by allegations of fraud, with opposition parties claiming correction fluid was used to alter numbers on vote tally sheets.

Development record

Mutharika has a mixed economic record since 2014.

Growth has slowed from 5.7 percent to four percent per year, but inflation has fallen sharply from 23 percent to below nine percent, according to IMF figures.

He campaigned on a reputation for improving the scant infrastructure and power supply in impoverished Malawi, where the economy relies largely on subsistence farming.

"You can see the developments that I have done across the country with your own eyes. Let the work of my hands bear witness for me," he said on the campaign trail, opening a new road.

Mutharika's office cancelled some of his campaign appearances, sparking rumours that he was ill or even dead.

Known for a low-key leadership style, the president returned to the campaign with a rare display of zeal, asking supporters at a rally: "Does this look like a dead man to you?"

With law degrees from the University of London and Yale, Mutharika left Malawi in the 1960s to settle in the United States.

He returned to the country in 1993 to help draft its first democratic constitution after the fall of Hastings Banda's dictatorship.

Mutharika went back to the US but returned home in 2004 when his brother came to power, serving as his informal advisor.

A widower for 30 years, Mutharika has three children. In 1994 he married his second wife Gertrude Maseko, a former member of parliament.

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