LILONGWE (Reuters) - Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika was “very critical” on Thursday after a heart attack and was being flown to South Africa for treatment, a minister said, raising fears of a political crisis in the impoverished southern African nation.
A Reuters reporter in Lilongwe witnessed chaotic scenes as the 78-year-old leader’s wife, Calista, and senior cabinet ministers left the capital’s Kamuzu Central Hospital, where Mutharika was admitted on Thursday morning after collapsing.
“There was panic,” one hospital staffer told Reuters. “We have never been prepared for such an eventuality. He suffered a cardiac arrest and the condition is still unstable.”
Vice-president Joyce Banda had wished Mutharika a speedy recovery, domestic media reported, although the relationship between the two has been rocky since she was kicked out of the ruling DPP party in 2010 after a row over succession.
However, the constitution makes clear she is first in line to take over, putting her on a collision course with Mutharika’s inner circle, including his Foreign Minister brother Peter, who normally deputises in his sibling’s absence.
Police deployed in force across the capital, especially near the hospital, while 15 army officers took up position around Banda’s residence, witnesses said.
Given the parlous state of hospital care in Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, a senior minister said Mutharika was being airlifted to South Africa within the next few hours for emergency treatment.
“The condition is very critical,” the minister, who asked for anonymity, said.
Despite Mutharika’s condition, there was little sympathy on the streets of Blantyre, the commercial capital, where many people view him as an autocrat who has mishandled the economy, causing chronic shortages of fuel, food and foreign exchange.
“Perhaps the end of our suffering is also nigh,” said Benson Msiska, a taxi driver stuck in a snaking queue for petrol.
Mutharika, a former World Bank economist, came to power in 2004 and presided over a seven-year economic boom - underpinned by foreign aid and some favourable rains - that made it one of one of the world’s fastest-growing countries.
However, the growth came to a juddering halt last year after a dispute with Britain led to tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and a freezing of millions of dollars of aid.
The move by Malawi’s biggest donor exacerbated an already acute dollar shortage, hampering imports of fuel, food and medicines, and leading to a depreciation in the currency, the kwacha, against the dollar.
Mutharika’s diplomatic isolation and economic plight worsened in July 2011 when the United States shelved a $350 million programme to overhaul the dilapidated power grid after police killed 20 people in a crackdown on an unprecedented wave of anti-government protests.
Government spokeswoman Patricia Kaliati was unable to confirm the president had been taken to hospital.
“What you are saying is news to me,” she said when asked about Mutharika’s status. “I was with him this morning and I can tell you that he is alright.”
Additional reporting by Frank Phiri in Blantyre and Olivia Kumwenda in Johannesburg; Writing by Ed Cropley; Editing by Jon Herskovitz