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03.02.2020 Malawi

Malawi's Peter Mutharika: Law professor turned unelected leader

By Jack McBRAMS
.  By AMOS GUMULIRA (AFP/File)
LISTEN FEB 3, 2020
. By AMOS GUMULIRA (AFP/File)

Malawi's President Peter Mutharika, 79, is a former Washington law professor whose second successive election victory was declared invalid on Monday over widespread polling irregularities.

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.

But his re-election last May with a narrow margin saw him being hauled before the courts following allegations malfeasance, including ballot sheet tampering.

He has a penchant for courting controversy.

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, corruption scandals and ballooning national debt, as well as concerns about his health.

A former law professor at Washington University, Mutharika has headed ministries including justice, education, science and technology and foreign affairs.

A constitutional law expert, he was first elected to parliament in 2009.

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

Correction fluid

But in 2018 Mutharika 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 police.

His narrow election victory last May was also hit by allegations of fraud, with opposition parties claiming correction fluid was used to alter numbers on vote tally sheets - claims that were upheld by the Constitutional Court.

Mutharika has a mixed economic record since 2014.

Growth has slowed from 5.7 percent to around 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.

Known for a low-key leadership style, Mutharika did not attend the court on Monday despite him being one of the main respondents.

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

He returned 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 an adviser.

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