Instead, he is more likely to be remembered as an old-fashioned African autocrat who picked a disastrous fight with foreign donors and ordered a crackdown on anti-government protesters in which 20 people were killed – a watershed moment for the peace-loving “Warm Heart of Africa”.
The mixture of relief and jubilation that greeted the 78-year-old’s death on Thursday is a far cry from when he first came to power in 2004.
Then, Malawi’s 13 million people hoped Mutharika would use his experience as a World Bank technocrat and regional trade expert to stamp out corruption and raise the fortunes of his landlocked and AIDS-blighted country.
Educated in law and economics at home and in India and the United States, he had the free-market credentials to get the largely agricultural economy moving – and for most of his eight years in power, it worked.
Due mainly to a donor-funded fertiliser subsidy scheme and some decent rains, Malawi’s maize harvests boomed, pushing annual economic growth to 10 percent, one of the highest rates in the world.
But even during the good times, the former British colony remained dangerously dependent on one product – tobacco, which accounted for up to 80 percent of foreign exchange earnings.
As a run of poor harvests and even poorer sales hit home, Malawi’s currency, the kwacha, came under severe pressure from businesses desperate for dollars to buy the food, fuel and medicines that could not be produced at home.
Yet Mutharika stubbornly refused to devalue the currency for fear it would trigger runaway inflation, as was happening in nearby Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe.
As the problems mounted, he resorted to long, rambling speeches on state radio, citing ever more fanciful growth statistics and inviting unflattering comparisons with Hastings Banda, the UK-educated medical doctor who ruled Malawi with an iron fist in its first three decades of independence.
“PROFESSORIAL, ARROGANT AND PATRICIAN”
One diplomat described Mutharika’s manner as “professorial, arrogant and patrician”, a view confirmed a year ago when he expelled Britain’s ambassador because of a leaked diplomatic cable that called him “autocratic and intolerant of criticism”.
Britain promptly severed aid worth $550 million over the next four years, and other donors started to follow suit, cutting off financial flows that had accounted for as much as 40 percent of government spending.
As the dollars evaporated, fuel supplies dried up and food prices soared, leading to popular unrest and attacks on Mutharika’s economic policies from bodies as diverse as the Catholic Church and International Monetary Fund.
Rather than changing tack, he told foreign donors to go to hell and hardened his line against all opposition.
After police killed 20 people in nationwide protests in July, Mutharika was unrepentant, choosing a police graduation ceremony to tell would-be protesters he would “smoke you out if you go back to the streets”.
He later urged supporters to “step in and defend their father rather than just sit back and watch him take crap from donors and rights groups”.
Those same donors and rights groups, and many ordinary Malawians, are hoping that with Mutharika gone Malawi can rebuild bridges with the outside world and get back on track.
“As Christians, we are not supposed to celebrate death,” said Whyson Chitete, a Lilongwe businessman in a long line for fuel at a petrol station. “But this one is different.”