Kamuzu, The Boy
In 1915, Kamuzu Banda was just another African boy aspiring to get into Nyasaland’s Overtoun Institution for teacher training.
He had a small frame, a big brain and a lot of spirits. Banda’s uncle, Hanock Msokela Phiri had walked the same road and excelled only a few years earlier. Phiri influenced the elders to let Banda go to school thus in 1915, young Kamuzu found himself sitting at the back of an examination hall at Livingstonia Mission, straining his eyes to see the questions on a blackboard which was a little too far for someone his size.
He had no option but to stand up and take a good look. He looked over the shoulder of the student ahead of him, towards the blackboard but the examination supervisor only saw a black boy whose eyes had gone no further than another student’s script. Without second thoughts, the supervisor who went by the name T Cullen Young disqualified Banda and told him to leave the exam room. In three weeks, Banda was crossing the Zambezi River headed to Lovedale in South Africa to seek an education.
Persistent, vain and a little overambitious – that was Kamuzu Banda to his death. In his youth, these qualities were endearing and laudable as they earned him his medical practice in the United Kingdom against trying odds. However, as he aged, the same qualities became the horrifying substratum of a violent regime that endured for more than three decades.
Kamuzu, The Man
Professor George Shepperson once asked Kamuzu Banda who he admired most in history and Banda responded: Julius Caesar. As if Banda’s life was designed by a dark-humored poet, his legacy is conveniently summed up in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar wherein Marcus Antonius says, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.”
What little good Kamuzu Banda did was buried under the sheer mass of terror he wrought in the hearts of many. To pretend Banda’s legacy is mixed is to be grossly disrespectful to the people he tormented during his time. Banda was a menacing mix of intellect and unadulterated evil. He was a doctor who had attained qualifications in the United States of America and the United Kingdom where he practiced before moving to Ghana. In the United Kingdom, he had actively campaigned against the Nyasaland (now Malawi), Northern (Zambia) and Southern Rhodesian (Zimbabwe) Federation but his efforts came to nothing. However, his interest in the politics of Nyasaland did not go unnoticed. Young freedom fighters in his homeland needed a dignified, elderly leader so that they could get the buy-in of traditional leaders in the country. They chose Hastings Kamuzu Banda. They could not have picked a worse candidate!
One of the fighters, Kanyama Chiume, got disillusioned with Banda the moment he set foot in Nyasaland. According to Chiume, upon his arrival, Banda carried himself like a white man, complained that the liberation movement had acquired a home that was beneath his dignity and declared he would not eat traditional food. These may seem like trivial objections but even The Nyasaland Times, a colonialist publication, celebrated his arrival by declaring, “…the extremists have got it all wrong.” Indeed, Banda is said to have been given to attacking Africans who disagreed with him accusing them of being uncivilized, a remark the late Henry Masauko Chipembere said: “was his favorite way of embarrassing into silence any African who criticized him”.
Independence in 1964 gave way to an African government led by Kamuzu Banda who quickly consolidated his power by firing four Ministers and continuing with the colonial modus operandi of repression. In two years, he declared the country a one-party state. By 1971, he had declared himself a President for life. His acolytes argued that even in heaven God did not allow dissent, so why would Banda allow it? It was an illogical that served no one but no one could say it. Banda had armed himself with power to censor expression and summarily detain opponents. In fact, Banda openly declared:
“If to maintain political stability and efficient administration, I have to detain 10 000, 100 000, I will do it. I want nobody to misunderstand me. I will detain anyone who is interfering with the political stability of this country.”
To achieve his goals, he employed the colonial Preservation of Public Security Ordinance and the Public Security Regulations. These laws gave Banda the power to issue preventive detention orders which could not be reviewed or second-guessed. Former ministers, former executives in State entities and party leaders were detained and some died under extremely suspicious circumstances. For example, in 1983, three cabinet ministers and a Member of Parliament died in a “car accident” purportedly trying to skip the country. The three had introduced a motion to reform the electoral system only a day earlier.
At the scene of the “accident”, the car was upside down but otherwise undamaged. It was surrounded by footprints and the bodies had bullet wounds. The bodies were returned to the families in sealed coffins. The families were ordered to have private funerals and so the matter ended. A few years later, Africa Watch determined that the four had been assassinated by the Banda regime. Beyond political opponents, Jehovah’s Witness members were also on the receiving end of Banda’s brutality for refusing to buy party cards.
The Evil Men Do Lives After Them
Banda made many other mistakes like supporting apartheid South Africa which repaid him by sponsoring the building of Lilongwe. He also supported Southern Rhodesia’s Ian Smith and the Portuguese who occupied Mozambique. Because he was decidedly anti-communist, he enjoyed support from the West which gave a blind eye to Banda’s evil regime. Britain, for example, gave Malawi $120 million in aid between 1964 to 1971 and was the African country’s biggest trade partner. In the first decade after independence, Malawi registered growth rate averaging 4.9% and in the 1970s, 6.3%. The rest of Sub Saharan Africa’s growth rates averaged 1.9%. For a while, the figures looked great under the autocratic Banda. Unfortunately, Banda had a firm hold of the entire economy through the Press Group company so there was no trickling down of economic benefits.
More can be said about Kamuzu Banda but no one can pretend he was an overly complex character – Kamuzu Banda was an unhinged autocrat. He wasted a unique opportunity to be the leader post-colonial Malawi deserved. Here was a doctor who not only failed to heal his country but became its greatest affliction. On November 25 in 1997, he died having blown whatever moral currency he had attained for his role in liberating Malawi. His name is hardly ever mentioned among Pan-African greats and it should remain that way.