Malawi: Era of One Party Rule (1964-1992)

Publisher's note: The following is research undertaken for the Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA. The requirements of publishing the printed text in a single volume required that the section "Independence and One-Party Rule" (p124) be cut in editing, a consideration that plays no part in Internet publishing, so it is possible to publish the entire text here in full.

On 6 July 1964 Nyasaland became the independent state of Malawi. Within three months of independence, however, Dr Banda was constitutionally challenged by a coalition of younger politicians who, besides differences on issues of policy, objected to the centralization of power in his hands. The security forces intervened decisively in his favour - from then onwards, the regime became progressively more authoritarian and dictatorial. The de facto position of the MCP was translated into a de jure reality in 1966 when the country became a one party state, with Dr Banda as executive president. Five years later, Ngwazi Dr H Kamuzu Banda was proclaimed president for life. In the ensuing years, no political opposition was tolerated and the various exiled opposition groups, of which the most prominent were the League for a Socialist Malawi (Lesoma) and the Malawi Freedom Movement (Mafremo), remained ineffectual, although they claimed to command strong support. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the government used detention without trial, torture and assassination to suppress political opposition. Within Malawi no political figure was permitted to emerge as an obvious successor to the ageing leader; and after the mysterious death of Dick Matenje in 1983, the post of MCP secretary general was left vacant. The dissolution and reorganization of the government became virtually an annual occurrence, preventing ministers from establishing secure power bases. Five elections were held at irregular intervals (in 1971, 1976, 1978, 1983 and 1987); in these contests all candidates, three to five per constituency, were personally vetted by the president after their nomination by party committees.

Nevertheless, while countries all around it fell into wars and were bankrupted by ill conceived economic planning and weakened by conflict, Malawi maintained a remarkably even keel after independence. Unlike its neighbours, the country could at least have been said to work - although the peace, stability and relative economic success which the country enjoyed until the early 1990s was bought at an exceptionally high price. While Malawi was the darling of international refugee agencies for its generous treatment of more than 1 million Mozambican refugees congesting the southern districts of the country, it was also found guilty by the international media and donor governments of committing outrageous acts against its own citizens. For all intents and purposes Malawi was not even a one party state: it was a one man state, a political despotism in which the state apparatus was answerable to only one man. The result was a climate of fear almost unparalleled anywhere in Africa, even in countries racked by violence. The country was rapidly drained of some of the best and the brightest in the African continent as leading party members were jailed, killed or fled into exile. Banda also entrenched his paternalistic ruling style by setting rigid and arbitrary standards for political, social and cultural behaviour, and heavy penalties for dissent.

To be sure, the Malawian state was a strong and authoritarian, one party state, dominated by a small, autocratic and dictatorial political clique and characterized by a "top down" flow of policy directives and government decrees - an archetype of the "leviathan" state. In this respect, ministerial and parliamentary structures were purely nominal and had the facile function of rubber stamping and rationalizing handed down policies. The "predatory" behaviour of the Malawian state, on the other hand, entailed a mutually reinforcing political and economic system in which the dominant minority of the political elite and their economic agencies preyed on the populace for their own benefit and at the expense of the absolute welfare of a majority of the population and long term development goals.