BLANTYRE, Malawi (AP) — Malawi's Bingu wa Mutharika has been hailed as an economic hero and decried as an autocrat since taking office eight years ago, along the way clashing with his own political mentors and foreign donors.
Doctors said Friday that Mutharika, 78, died Thursday in Malawi of a heart attack. His body was then flown to South Africa.
The doctors spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
His death leaves lingering questions about who will succeed him after political turmoil within his party.
Mutharika first won elections in 2004 in this southern African nation, which is among the world's poorest.
During his first term, the former World Bank official persisted with a program to help farmers buy fertilizer even though Western donor nations and agencies warned against imposing subsidies in a free market. His subsidies were credited with boosting Malawi's economy.
In more recent years, the economy has stumbled, with shortages of fuel and foreign currency and high unemployment.
Anti-government demonstrations across Malawi last year were met with an unprecedented security crackdown that resulted in at least 19 deaths.
Earlier this month, after a top civic rights body called on him to quit, Mutharika departed from a prepared speech to declare he wouldn't call a referendum on his rule.
"This is my answer ... I won't answer again," he said. "According to laws, I'm supposed to step down in 2014 but I want to remind you that I have an unassailable majority so that if I want to stand for a third term, or a fourth term or indeed be a life president I can do it, even those in opposition can vote for me."
The previous month, he had paid a surprise visit to neighboring Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has been accused of using fraud and intimidation to hold onto power. Mutharika told reporters after his visit he came to "compare notes" and "share ideas with my elder brother," Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for three decades.
Malawi's relations with foreign donors have been strained by accusations Mutharika was authoritarian and responsible for human rights abuses. Last month, a U.S. aid agency that rewards good governance suspended $350 million worth of assistance to Malawi.
Last year, Mutharika expelled Britain's High Commissioner to Malawi after the envoy was quoted in a local newspaper expressing concern about the president's intolerance of criticism and about deteriorating human rights. Former ruler Britain then indefinitely suspended aid to Malawi, which in the end invited the envoy back.
The European Union, Germany and Norway have also halted assistance to Malawi, citing concerns about the direction of the economy as well as Mutharika's right records.
Malawi's stance on gay rights has been one particular area of concern.
During Mutharika's second term, he pardoned a gay couple who had been sentenced to 14 years in prison under the country's anti-gay laws. But Mutharika insisted the pardon was on "humanitarian grounds only," and insisted that homosexuality was still illegal in the conservative nation.
Pop star Madonna, who has adopted two Malawian children and funded orphanages and other aid programs in the country, was moved to speak out in support of gay rights in Malawi.
Mutharika also has clashed with politicians at home, including his own vice president, Joyce Banda. She was expelled from Mutharika's party and formed her own but remains vice president. The constitution says she is next in line in the event of the president's death or departure.
When Mutharika first came to power, he was backed by his predecessor, Bakili Muluzi. Malawians and foreign observers welcomed Mutharika's vows to fight poverty and corruption.
A feud ensued after Mutharika had Muluzi charged with corruption and fraud. Mutharika left the ruling party to establish his own. Political bickering between the two men led to extensive legislative delays, rioting, a failed impeachment bid, and accusations of coup and assassination plots.
Mutharika won close to 65 percent of the vote in an election in May 2009. During his second term, he kept his campaign promise of expelling foreign tobacco buyers who were paying less than agreed-upon prices for the country's main cash crop, calling them the "enemy of the people." In 2009, tobacco was responsible for more than 75 percent of Malawi's foreign exchange earnings.
Mutharika's rhetoric could be blunt. He described Malawi as "a black country for black people" after a white man's five dogs seriously wounded an elderly Malawian.
During Mutharika's tumultuous first term, his wife died of cancer.
He remarried in 2010, wedding a former Cabinet minister in a lavish ceremony at a sports stadium in the capital. Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was among the guests.
Mutharika had four children with his first wife. His second wife, Callista also had been widowed and had two children from her first marriage.