Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika.

Blantyre -Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika was once praised as a corruption-buster who ended a devastating famine, but some now see him as a “Mr Know-it-All” who refuses to listen to criticism.

Mutharika, 78, was unconscious in hospital on Thursday after suffering a heart attack two weeks after styling himself as a hard worker who 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 is seen by some as a corruption-buster and 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 left 19 dead last year.

“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 has seen 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, former 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 launched expensive but popular fertiliser subsidies that helped 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 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 slashing its financial support last year.

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.

Internationally, his rotation at the helm of the African Union was overshadowed when a gay couple was arrested after holding the country's first same-sex marriage in 2009.

A global outcry over their 14-year prison sentence forced a presidential pardon.

Last year, the impeccably dressed leader described himself as Malawi's most insulted president.

“No president has been insulted more than Bingu,” he said last January. “Do you want this country to be ruled by an angel?” - Sapa-AFP