In this photo taken on September 2, 2010, Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika gives a news conference in Berlin.
CNN: Malawian President Bingu wa Mutharika, once hailed as a positive steward for the southern African country, has died after a heart attack, government officials said Friday.
Mutharika was 78.
His body was flown to South Africa, the officials said.
The former World Bank economist first became president in 2004 after campaigning as an “economic engineer,” and was re-elected five years later.
He took the top job after studying in various countries, including the United States, where he obtained a doctorate in economics. He also had a long career with international agencies.
Mutharika focused on battling corruption and working to improve the economy during his first years in office, mostly hailed as a success.
He implemented a popular program targeting farmers that is credited with boosting the economy of the largely agricultural nation and helping millions by subsidizing agricultural products.
Citizens welcomed his focus on reducing reliance on food aid and attaining self-sufficiency.
However, his popularity has plunged in recent years as the economy faltered and the nation faced chronic fuel scarcity, foreign exchange reserve shortages and frequent power blackouts.
Anti-government demonstrators have accused him of dragging the nation back into a dictatorship, citing a struggling economy and the passage of bills they say infringe on citizen rights.
Protesters took to the streets last year demanding immediate government action to address the economic plight. Security forces cracked down, leading to at least 12 deaths and sparking international condemnation.
Critics also accuse him of jeopardizing international relations and risking foreign aid that benefits the poor in the nation.
Also last year, Mutharika expelled a British envoy from Malawi after he was quoted criticizing the leader in a leaked diplomatic cable, straining relations with one of its largest foreign donors. In return, Britain asked Malawi’s top envoy to leave the country and rescinded her invitation to the royal wedding.
At the time, London said it has halted “all general budget support.”
International isolation continues almost a year later, with the United States announcing last month that it is suspending $350 million allocated to Malawi because of concerns about its democratic governance.
The Millennium Challenge Corp., which administers the aid, urged Malawi to respect citizens’ rights and said it will continue to monitor the nation closely before the body’s next meeting in June. The funds were to boost the country’s faltering energy sector.
Mutharika has clashed with politicians at home as well, and frosty relations with his vice president, Joyce Banda, have dominated the headlines. Banda was expelled from the ruling party, but remains vice president.
She is in line to take over as the head of state under the Constitution in the case of a power vacuum, but it is unclear whether her expulsion will affect the succession.