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Malawi vice-president who was plucked from business

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Malawi’s Vice-President Saulos Chilima has died at the age of 51 after a military aircraft he was flying in crashed in a forest in the north of the country.

He had been vice-president for 10 years, initially under former President Peter Mutharika, who picked him from the business sector for the second most senior post in government.

He was described as a “performer” and “workaholic” but he was perhaps defined by being at the centre of corruption allegations in government.

First as an accuser, and then as an accused.

Before Dr Chilima became vice-president in 2014, he was the managing director of the country’s leading telecommunications firm Airtel Malawi, the first Malawian to head the organisation.

Mr Mutharika had reportedly said he was partnering with a “reliable and productive” person.

But four years later, Dr Chilima fell out with the president, accusing the government of not doing enough to fight corruption and protecting some people.

Under Malawian law the president cannot fire the vice-president – Dr Chilima defied calls to resign despite publicly challenging the government he was in.

He later formed his own political party, the United Transformation Movement (UTM), calling for radical change and reform in the country.

He ran for president in 2019 as the party’s candidate and came third.

Mr Mutharika won that election but it was subsequently annulled by Malawi’s top court because of widespread irregularities.

It was the first time in Africa that an election result was both overturned by a court and then the sitting president went on to be defeated in a re-run.

Dr Chilima teamed up as the running mate of Lazarus Chakwera in the historic 2020 re-run.

Mr Chakwera, who had emerged second in the discredited poll of 2019, was resoundingly elected president, and Dr Chilima became his vice-president.

But the vice-president would soon himself face corruption allegations, which he had so much rallied against in the previous administration.

He was arrested in 2022 on claims that he received money in return for influencing the awarding of government contracts – which he denied.

The president fired other officials who were named alongside him.

As he could not sack the vice-president, Mr Chakwera promised he would no longer delegate any official duties to Dr Chilima while he was facing trial.

But the charges were dropped last month with no reasons given – in a move that raised questions about the handling of corruption cases.

Before his role as a political heavyweight in Malawi, Dr Chilima had held other senior roles in the corporate sector, including at Coca Cola and Unilever.

He was an economist and held a PhD in knowledge management.

While serving in government, he was also the minister responsible for economic planning and public sector reforms.

The government’s website said he was a “performer”, “workaholic” and “an achiever”.

Dr Chilima was born on 12 February 1973 in Ntcheu district in central Malawi.

He leaves behind his wife Mary and two children, Sean and Elizabeth.

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