BLANTYRE - Malawi’s President Bingu wa Mutharika, who died Friday after a heart attack, was praised as a corruption-buster who ended a devastating famine, but his stubbornness divided his people and alienated vital donors. Mutharika, 78, died hours after being rushed to hospital, government and party officials said. Just two weeks earlier, he had refused to bow to demands to step down, despite deadly riots over his leadership last year. “I want to inform the Malawi nation that Bingu will not step down until 2014,” he defiantly told a rally. “I would like to say that Bingu doesn’t run away from work, Bingu doesn’t desert responsibility even if the going gets tough.”

Re-elected with a sweeping majority three years ago, Mutharika was seen by some as a fighter against corruption and an advocate for the poor, but as arrogant, prickly and autocratic by others.

“Some people have dubbed me dictator. They don’t know what a dictator is. I consult with everybody. There is no way I can be a dictator,” he told AFP two days before the riots that left 19 dead last July.

“But there is also discipline, because no nation on this earth can run without discipline.”

A refusal to listen to criticism, whether from civil society or the International Monetary Fund, earned him the moniker “Mr Know-it-All”, accused of turning a deaf ear to growing public anger.

His second term saw increasing discontent, with critics lambasting laws that restricted the media, protests, and lawsuits against the government.

A leading rights group last month threatened civil unrest if Mutharika did not resign or call a referendum on his rule, accusing him of mismanaging the economy and trampling on democratic freedoms.

Born in the southern tea-growing district of Thyolo, Mutharika was a founding member of the United Democratic Front in 1993, then an underground movement pressing for reforms after three decades of Kamuzu Banda’s dictatorial rule.

Mutharika lost his first presidential bid in 1999, but won five years later when erstwhile mentor and outgoing president Bakili Muluzi chose him as his successor.

He then rejected Muluzi by breaking away to form his own party and opening a graft case against him.

After winning his first term in 2004, Mutharika introduced expensive but popular fertiliser subsidies to help end a famine that hit five million people, more than a third of the population.

The corruption proceedings he launched against Muluzi and a case involving a former education minister who was jailed over kickbacks helped him broaden his base in the 2009 elections, when he returned to office with 66 percent of the vote.

Emboldened by the wide victory, he wasted little time in strengthening his hand.

He also began grooming his brother Peter as his successor, expelling popular Vice President Joyce Banda from his ruling Democratic Progressive Party in a move that alienated many urban voters.

Alarmed by his restrictions on political freedoms, donors began suspending aid, with former colonial power Britain and the United States slashing their financial support last July.

A former World Bank economist, Mutharika presided over steady economic growth but struggled to manage foreign currency reserves, compounded by a drop in the country’s main export, tobacco, which severely hit fuel imports.