For nearly 40 years Peter Mutharika, the new president of the African country of Malawi, built a seemingly typical career as a respected law scholar at Washington University.
Mutharika, one of the law school’s first black professors, taught courses in contract law and advanced ones on international commercial law. He wrote books. He sent his three children to private schools in Ladue and sat on one of the school’s boards. He lived in University City and later in Creve Coeur and then retired after receiving a distinguished teaching chair.
Yet unknown to many of his colleagues and students, Mutharika spent his years in academia also biding his time and quietly working behind the scenes to influence the future of his native African country more than 8,600 miles away.
Just how influential was he?
On Saturday, Mutharika, now 74, a soft-spoken professor with a proper English-educated accent and who smoked a pipe while he taught in the 1970s, shocked many of his former colleagues and students when he was officially named the southeastern African country’s president after a tumultuous election that took more than a week to resolve.
It was an ascent to power just three years after his formal retirement from Washington University.
He now leads an impoverished country fraught with political turmoil and intrigue. Last year Mutharika and other members of then-President Joyce Banda’s political cabinet were briefly jailed. News accounts tell of Mutharika’s supporters — opponents of Banda — gathered outside the prison chanting his name and sending away suspected assassins.
And now, Mutharika, a former resident of Ames Place in University City and a former board trustee for Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, where two of his daughters went to school, is the country’s president.
He follows in the footsteps of his brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, who had been re-elected Malawi’s president in 2009 but died in office in 2012.
His former students and colleagues at Washington University said Mutharika’s transformation from scholar who generously hosted students at dinners, to quiet international law expert, to prisoner and, now, to president has been nothing but breathtaking — and nail-biting.
Throughout the political proceedings there has been among his friends a fear for his safety, though most are reticent to speak about it.
Susan Appleton, a vice dean at the law school and a longtime colleague, said she became a Malawi news junkie in the past several months following the political twists and turns of a country still struggling with fledgling democracy, tribal power, corruption and the interpretation of the country’s constitution.
Press accounts of her former colleague vary from heroic to damaging. Just hours after his swearing-in, one analyst described Peter Mutharika as being deeply involved in the mismanagement that prevailed during his brother’s administration. That administration also had been heavily criticized for cracking down violently against political opponents.
Friends in St. Louis, however, say he is a serious, thoughtful and measured man who they believe can bring great good to a small, landlocked country struggling to feed its people and sustain trade. The country is highly reliant on foreign aid. About half of Malawi’s 16 million people live on less than $1 a day, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Colleagues said it has been fascinating to watch Mutharika’s transformation.
“I guess what’s surprising is he was a quiet man in class,” said attorney John Kozyak, one of Mutharika’s first law students at Washington University in 1971, and now a friend. “So it was surprising to me a couple of years ago when I was looking on the news and saw that he had thousands of people come out to rallies for him and he was dressed in some sort of (ceremonial) garb. I never saw him in anything other than a black or gray or blue suit. I never thought of him as a real African politician.”
But indeed he was. David Becker, a professor emeritus of law at Washington University, said Mutharika began drafting Malawi’s new constitution from Missouri. It was only later that he learned his close friend had been quietly working behind the scenes with his brother and others for decades to shape the political future of his country from which he had originally been driven away by political opponents.
“He was basically part of this peaceful move to change the country,” Becker said. “He lived with that secretly for a number of years, and all of us who were close with him and with his wife felt deprived of the opportunity to be of some strength to him.”
Mutharika was a descendant of a Malawian tribal leader. He had been sent out of the country as young man. He earned a law degree in London and then moved to the United States, where he earned advanced degrees in law at Yale University.
He moved to St. Louis in the early 1970s to take a teaching job at the Washington University School of Law. He and his wife Christophine, who died in 1990, had three children in St. Louis: Monique, Moyenda and Peter. Christophine worked in the university’s student infirmary.
Becker said one of his friend’s first books dealt with people in exile or “statelessness” — “a definitive book concerning people without a country.”
Mutharika’s brother, Bingu wa, was first elected president of Malawi in 2004. Near the end of his career at Washington University, amid trips back and forth to Malawi, Peter Mutharika helped his brother form a 19-member cabinet.
Kozyak said he was not surprised that his former professor eventually left his comfortable academic life in St. Louis to rejoin his country at a later stage in his life. His children, all attorneys residing in the United States, were grown and successful. He was a highly educated man from tribal royalty in Malawi who had come to St. Louis when it was still highly segregated. It was time for him to assume his role in his native country, Kozyak said.
“I think that he was very proud and eager to serve his people,” he said.
After returning to Malawi, Mutharika was elected to its parliament in 2009 and served periods as minister of justice, education and foreign affairs.
His brother’s death in 2012 during his second presidential term set off extreme turmoil over his successor, then-Vice President Banda. Banda’s detractors argued that she had switched to an opposing party and had nullified her right to power. Banda said they were undermining the constitution and paving the way for Peter Mutharika to take power.
After the electoral authorities announced Mutharika’s victory, Banda voiced her support for the new president.
Becker said he had last spoken to Mutharika in January when his friend was in America visiting doctors and gave a talk at Washington University.
“I’ve said to him, ‘Peter, what is it like when 5,000 people greet you at the airport, cheering and dancing and singing? What’s it like to have people lined up to hear your speeches?’ He said it’s truly exhilarating.”