REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The president of Malawi was in a critical condition Thursday after suffering a heart attack and was being flown to South Africa for treatment, according to news agency reports.
Bingu wa Mutharika, 78, was initially rushed to a hospital in Lilongwe, the capital of the small impoverished southern African nation, after collapsing Thursday morning at his official residence.
Reuters news service cited an unnamed Cabinet minister saying Mutharika's condition was "very critical" and hadn't stabilized after cardiac arrest.
Deputy President Joyce Banda is second in line under the Malawian Constitution and would serve the remaining two years of his term if he could not do so.
However, Banda fell out with the president in 2010 and was thrown out of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, raising speculation that the ruling elite would resist her if Mutharika couldn't carry on, setting the scene for a constitutional crisis.
Mutharika, a former World Bank official, has ruled for eight years, taking his country from a position of dependency on food aid to a degree of self-sufficiency. But in recent years he has been hit by accusations of mishandling the economy and trampling on democracy.
In 2010, donors cut millions in aid, criticizing Mutharika's economic policies.
Things worsened last year when he expelled the British ambassador after a leaked cable quoting the diplomat as criticising Mutharika as autocratic and intolerant. Britain severed ties and cut assistance, throwing the country's aid-dependent health system into crisis.
Mutharika came under further pressure last July when police killed at least 19 protesters during a wave of anti-government demonstrations. Last month the United States suspended $350 million in aid that was tied to good governance.
Mutharika said recently that Western donors could "go to hell" and accused them of funding nongovernmental organizations to protest against him.
Activists and opposition groups have been calling for him to step down before his term expires in 2014. Last month, an opposition figure, Atupele Muluzi, 34, was arrested during riots in Lilongwe.
Banda fell out with Mutharika over plans to name his brother, Foreign Minister Peter wa Mutharika, as the Democratic Progressive Party's candidate for president in 2014 elections, which he recently did. Malawian newspapers reported last November that Mutharika and his inner circle of loyalists were planning move against Banda, and launch impeachment proceedings against her, in order to usher in his brother.
Reports last year that the president had flown to China for medical treatment were denied by his brother, who said the leader was on a shopping trip.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika is shown in this July 18, 2011, in Lilongwe, the capital. Credit: Alexander Joe / AFP/Getty Images.