Sam Mchombo   



1999, the heads of state of the countries in the Southern Africa Development

Community (SADC) had a summit in Maputo, Mozambique. Held against the backdrop

of economic stagnation, unresolved conflicts in Angola, internal strife in the

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) threatening to engulf countries in East,

Central, and Southern Africa in a regional war, the theme of the conference

could very easily have been subtitled with doom and gloom in the region. The

only celebratory note came by way of congratulatory remarks extended to South

Africa and Malawi, the former for conducting post-apartheid elections in April,

which paved the way for Thabo Mbeki to take over from Nelson Mandela as

president; the latter for holding the first elections in June since the countrys

reversion to multi-party politics, returning the incumbent, Bakili Muluzi of the

United Democratic Front to the presidency. The United Democratic Front defeated

the opposition parties with a slim margin of about three hundred thousand votes,

which the opposition parties attributed to rigging and tried to contest the

outcome. The result stood, and Bakili Muluzi and the United Democtratic Front

got a second term in the era of multi-party politics in Malawi.


the congratulatory remarks extended to Malawi were more significant than the

occasion may have made manifest. Because of its size (Malawi is one of the

smallest nations in Africa and the world), its lack of economic muscle (Malawi

is one of the poorest countires in the world), and having conducted its recent

elections weeks after those of South Africa (Malawi is of no strategic

importance), the impact of the political lessons Malawi has offered to the world

have gone largely unnoticed. A brief review should help put matters in



a British protectorate called Nyasaland, Malawi got its independence in 1964 and

became a Republic in 1966. For nearly thirty years of its post-independence

history, Malawi was dominated by the autocratic rule of the man who became its

first Prime Minisister, then President, then President-for-Life, in rather quick

succession, the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. President Banda outlawed

multi-party politics. His party, the Malawi Congress Party, became the ruling

and sole legal party in Malawi. He was the Life President of the party and the

country, head of government and state, a situation that quickly made Malawi

slide into a de facto one-man state. President Banda brooked no opposition.

Critics of his rule and policies, real or, as in most instances, imagined, and

there was no shortage of those, had meted on them the harshest conditions of

political detention or worse. His domestic policies, which saw him acquire land

and wealth at the expense of the dispossessed masses, enforced capitalism at its

most rapacious as Tony Green, a British academic teaching at the University of

Malawi in the early 70s, aptly characterized it. Being practically the countrys

business conglomerate there was criticism of, and dissatisfaction with, his

economic policies. His foreign policy of maintaining diplomatic relations with

apartheid South Africa, a policy called contact and dialogue, when the rest of

the world tried to distance itself from that renegade regime, and, further,

cuddling up to the Portuguese when they were involved in armed conflict with the

nationalist forces in Mozambique and Angola, put him at odds with the member

states of the Organization of African Unity. That Kamuzu Banda was a political

maverick was accepted dogma in Africa. Of course Kamuzu Banda also played the

cold war card. He maintained a staunch anti-communist policy, which endeared him

to the member states of NATO, especially Great Britain, as the former colonial

power, and the United States.


control over Malawi was so absolute, from the media through the judiciary, the

military, the legislative, to the executive branches of government, police and

domestic affairs to foreign affairs, etc., that it was practically impossible to

even imagine him dislodged from power. The expectation was that he would only

relinquish power upon his demise, after which issues of transition would be

dealt with. That prospect was made less welcome by the fact that Kamuzu Banda

altered the constitution to get sworn in as president-for-life, with the added

condition that during his tenure, there would be no Vice-President, ensuring a

power vacuum on his departure. Under the autocratic rule of President Banda

human rights violations practically became an aspect of ordinary life, a fact

noted in various publications by Amnesty Imternational, Human Rights Watch, and

other organizations devoted to monitoring human rights abuses. Noam Chomsky and

Edward Herman in their 1979 publication, The Washington Connection and Third

World Fascism. The Political Economy of Human Rights noted, on the inside of the

top cover, that Malawi was one of the countries outside U.S. sphere of influence

that practice torture on an administrative basis. Africa Watchs 1990 publication

called Where Silence Rules. The Suppression of Dissent in Malawi provided more

details about the human rights violations of the Banda regime. Sam Mpasu, a

former political detainee, offers rare insight, in lucid prose, into the

kafkasque politics of the Banda regime and the realities of life in Malawis

notorious detention camps. This is in his nonfictional publication, Political

Prisoner 3/75.


lack of a diversified economy, with an economy based entirely on agriculture and

natural resources has, through the years, translated into having its able-bodied

men participate in migrant labor, working for stints in farms and mines in South

Africa, Zimbabwe, and Zambia (especially during the boom years of

copper-mining). Kamuzu Banda himself walked to South Africa, through Zimbabwe,

during his youth, to work in the mines. In other words, Malawi has,

traditionally, had the image of an economic slum, providing cheap labor to its

neighbors. During the Kamuzu Banda era, the exodus was supplemented by the

migration of intellectuals who, for acquiring critical minds and analytical

skills, were assumed to be critical of the regime. As their numbers began to

swell the ranks of political detention camps, those who could moved out and

sought refuge in other countries. Malawi has thus been a country which, by and

large, has been sustained by women, who also had their share of political

incarceration. Kamuzu Banda exploited the situation further, mobilizing the

women into his personal dance troupes and using their services for personal



first lesson that Malawi has recently provided came by way of dismantling the

entrenched and apparently unshakable dictatorial regime of Kamuzu Banda. In the

early 90s there was sufficient grassrooots movement for political reform and

reinstatement of democratic practice, which caught the regime unawares. With the

support of the Catholic bishops and pressure from the international aid donors,

conveniently facilitated by the end of the cold war, Kamuzu Bandas government

found itself unable to stem the tide for change. Bandas own advanced age, then

in his late 80s or early 90s, and the frailty of his health, made for reduction

of his grip on the machinery of government. In 1993 Banda conceded to put the

issue of multi-party politics to an internationally supervised referendum. A 67%

vote for multi-partyism brought Banda to his knees and in May 1994, soon after

the South African elections, Malawians went to the polls in the first free

elections since independence. Banda was handed his final defeat and the era of

multi-party politics, with Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front as the

president, was ushered in. Malawis transition from one-party dictatorship to

democratic practice had, by and large, been achieved with, relatively, minimal

social unrest or military activity. It was, by and large, amazingly peaceful,

hence virtually unnoticeable and unremarkable. My contribution to the 1998

volume, Democratizatization in Late Twentieth-Century Africa, edited by Jean-Germain

Gross, provides pertinent details about the transition to democratic practice in



Muluzi government inherited a country in dire economic straits, in political

transition, and in need of definition of new economic directions. It had to

re-institute democratic principles, independence of the judiciary, freedom of

the press, restore respect for human rights and, most important, needed to

stimulate economic growth for the change to be meaningful. With the

international money lenders, such as the World Bank and the IMF applying

pressure to force privatization of industry, etc. Muluzi has had to preside over

increased de-nationalization of industry and commerce, to encourage free

enterprise and attract investment. It is in economic development that Malawi is

facing increased challenges.


major challenge for economic progress in Malawi rests in increasing scarcity of

the very commodity Malawi has traditionally provided other countries, viz.,

human resources. While previously this was a consequence of migration, most

recently the situation has been exacerbated by the impact of AIDS. Under Kamuzu

Banda, there was ample scope for looseness of morality, fuelled in part by

Bandas public appearances. On such occasions the women were brought in from

various parts of the country to dance for him, after which they socialized for

hours, immune to queries from spouses about late arrival. This, compounded with

pervasive relaxed attitudes towards multiplicity of sexual partners, did little

to curb the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Then, Bandas

puritanism curtailed public discussion of matters sexual, broadly construed. For

instance, the song by Marvin Gaye, titled Sexual Healing, could not be played on

Malawi radio, because of the title. The reticence to discuss sexual issues,

occasionally highlighted by unwitting censoring of medical books on obstetrics

and gynecology, translated into delayed acknowledgment of the level of AIDS

infestation and the candor requisite for promotion of AIDS awareness and

prevention. Late July 1994, barely two months after Bakili Muluzi took over the

government, it was announced on South African media that the President of Malawi

had said that 10% of the Malawi population was HIV positive or AIDS infected. I

was in Johannesburg, visiting academic institutions in South Africa, and hosted

by a long time friend, Southwood Ngoma, then a diplomat attached to the Malawi

Consulate in Johannesburg. Commenting on the news, his wife expressed relief

that the statistics were as indicated. My remonstration that for a small country

of limited resources, and with a population of a little more than 10 million,

10% was unacceptably high was met with the observation that previous estimates

had put the numbers at as high as around 33%, hence the downward revision was

cause for a measure of solace. True, if the statistics were indeed correct. It

seemed to me that the statistics were simply maintaining their image of being

like bikinis–revealing very interesting features while covering up crucial

details. The important statistics are gauged by the prevailing attitude in

Malawi. The SADC summit was held when I was in Lilongwe, hosted once again by

Southwood Ngoma, now back in Malawi. Visiting his office, I ran into a friend,

Paul Chikakula. He had been a student at the University of Malawi late 70s to

early 80s, during my tenure as an instructor there. Working for the Dept. of

Civil Aviation in the same building, he invited me into his office. Inevitably,

I got to talking about some of the friends who studied with him, wondering where

they were and what they were doing. He pointed out to me that in Malawi, it is

not wise to inquire into the whereabouts of friends not seen for some time. Why?

Because the inquiries depressingly led to the discovery that they were no more.

Further, for those friends who met irregularly, it turned out that their

meetings were primarily at funerals of friends. The toll that AIDS has exacted

on Malawi society has been very high, with incalculable consequences on social

structure and economic progress.


the decimation of the most productive part of the population, teachers, police,

medical personnel, the civil service, etc., means that even with favorable

climate for investment, there is simply inadequate work-force, deterring

investment prospects because of apprehension surrounding returns. Further,

industrial productivity has been seriously impacted by the regularity of

funerals, now practically daily occurrences. Then, there is the shift in

demographics. Alex Mkandawire, a professor at Bunda College of Agriculture in

Lilongwe, currently a visiting scholar at the University of California at Davis,

indicated to me recently that in some villages it is painfully noticeable that

all there are are the very old and the very young. This has had further

consequences on the structure of extended families and the responsibilities that

this, traditionally, has brought along. With an increase in orphaned children,

the system finds itself strained and more people are relinquishing their

responsibilities, opting out of caring for the orphaned nephews, nieces, etc.


impact of AIDS has been such that Malawi, and many other countries in the

region, have to maintain a fast production of trained personnel to replace the

lost workforce, an impossible task even under the best of circumstances. A

concrete example should serve to higlight the plight. President Bakili Muluzi

has tried to fulfil his campaign promise of free primary education. In 1997,

during a family visit, I went to my old elementary school called Chombo, run by

the Anglican Church in Nkhotakota area. Catering for up to 8th grade, the school

lacked facilities, with classes held in the open under trees, blackboards

hanging on the trees, no notepads or pencils for the students, or even chalk.

The lack of habitable buildings and stationery could, conceivably, be overcome.

However, the major problem for that school, repeated across the country, extends

beyond the lack of adequate facilities or stationery—there are no teachers.

The school thrived partly on retired teachers who had had to be re-drafted into

service. Restocking schools like that with trained teachers at a time when AIDS

continues to ravage the land is a bleak prospect. The situation continues to

plague all sectors of economic activity. The economic stagnation is already

having an impact on the peoples evaluation of democracy. While recently the

United Nations decided to couch discussion of AIDS within the framework of

security matters, for the southern Africa region, the impact of AIDS is more

immediately connected to straight economic performance and the political

consequences accruing from the lack of economic development. For Malawi the real

congratulations will come when lessons it has provided about shifting from

autocracy to democracy, and the implementation of democratic reform, can be

accompanied with positive economic performance. To achieve this, AIDS education,

awareness, prevention, and cure, inevitably, constitute necessary conditions.