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Bingu wa Mutharika: Leading man

Bingu wa Mutharika

By Raphael Tenthani
BBC News, Blantyre

Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika has won a second term after a landslide win in the nation's general elections.

In 2005, when he ditched the United Democratic Front (UDF), the party whose leader Bakili Muluzi ironically anointed him successor, pundits did not give the president a chance.

His then newly-founded Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) paled at the strength of the combined opposition in the just-dissolved parliament.

The presidency is like a relay race
Bingu wa Mutharika

But Mr Mutharika weathered the storm for five turbulent years to score a resounding victory in the presidential and parliamentary vote of the May 2009 general election.

Born Ryson Webster Thom in the tea-growing district of Thyolo some 75 years ago, the school master's son adopted the more African name Bingu wa Mutharika during the 1960s.

When founding father Hastings Kamuzu Banda came to power in 1964 after Malawi - then called Nyasaland - became independent, Mr Mutharika became the first Malawian administrator in the civil service, which was then still dominated by the British.

But during the so-called "cabinet crisis" in the same year, when some senior ministers rebelled against Dr Banda's traits of dictatorship, the man destined one day for the top job fled Malawi after rumours spread that the president believed he was in cahoots with the rebel ministers.

Flight and disguise

That was when he added the "wa" in his name to disguise his identity as a Malawian.

Bingu wa Mutharika (back) and Bakili Muluzi (front)
In 2004 Bakili Muluzi (front) campaigned for Mr Mutharika (behind)

At that time Dr Banda's state machinery used to hunt down the former dictator's opponents all over the world.

Dr Mutharika first went to Zambia, then India where he studied development economics.

He later went to the United States where he obtained a doctorate in economics.

Then begun a long career as an international civil servant.

Bingu, as he is popularly known, started off at the World Bank in Washington and the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

He then became secretary-general of the regional trading bloc - the Preferential Trade Area (PTA) - in Lusaka, Zambia.

When the PTA transformed itself into Common Market for the Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) in 1995, Mr Mutharika became its founding secretary-general.

The economist-turned-politician's ambition to rule Malawi dates back to as early as 1992 when he became a founding member of the then underground political pressure group, the UDF.

It would rule Malawi for 10 years after the first multiparty general elections in 1994.

Mr Mutharika drafted the UDF's first manifesto and expressed interest to stand as a UDF candidate in the 1994 election.

Fall from grace

But he was upstaged by supporters of businessman and former Banda protege, Bakili Muluzi.

John Tembo
John Tembo is viewed by many as the incumbent's main challenger

Mr Muluzi prevailed over Mr Mutharika on the premise that the latter had been out of Malawi for far too long.

Mr Mutharika was forced to leave Comesa amid allegations of financial mismanagement.

He, however, vehemently denies this, saying it was his political opponents back home who initiated his fall from grace.

Back in Malawi, Mr Mutharika had a go at the presidency in the 1999 elections as a candidate for the little-known United Party.

He ended up the last among the five candidates.

Then he melted into the political wilderness, only to resurface from hibernation as a surprise presidential candidate for the UDF after retiring President Muluzi failed in his bid to elongate his tenure of office beyond his constitutional two five-year terms.

Mr Muluzi, who dubbed himself the "Political Engineer", sold Mr Mutharika as the "Economic Engineer".

I believe the DPP will win these elections because the work of my hands will speak for me
Bingu wa Mutharika

Not a naturally charismatic public speaker, Mr Mutharika relied on Mr Muluzi to do all the campaigning - so much so that it was a complete surprise that the two fell out immediately after the elections.

Mr Mutharika blamed his quitting the UDF on his former political allies, whom he accused of frowning upon his tough anti-corruption drive.

But his move ignited his political problems in parliament since the UDF was angry that it spent so much energy on Bingu the candidate, only to be relegated to opposition ranks by Bingu the president.

The UDF joined hands with the main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) to give him a tough time in Parliament.

Most government bills were shot down by the combined opposition and the president had to struggle for months to pass his budgets.

Film scripts

But despite all this he believed the nation was behind him - and his trust was not misplaced.

"The opposition tried all they could to frustrate my government but they failed miserably," he said, before winning his second term.

Mr Mutharika, a church-going Catholic, married his childhood sweetheart Ethel, who had roots in both Malawi and Zimbabwe.

The first lady, who had cancer, died last year. The Mutharikas have four grown children.

In his spare time Mr Mutharika told the BBC News that he dabbles in both non-fiction and fiction writing.

He has published a number of books on business and says he has two scripts for possible feature films.

Unlike most African leaders, Mr Mutharika has promised to retire from active politics after seeing off his second term in 2014.

"The presidency is like a relay race," he says. "When you run your bit you give it to the other to continue."



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14 May 09 |  Africa
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Ex-Malawi leader on theft charges
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Timeline: Malawi
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