Malawi celebrates independence day, but the first president left his mark

Today, July 6, Malawi celebrates 56 years of independence and 62 years since its founding father, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, returned to the British colony of Nyasaland after working and studying abroad. The country was the first member of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe) to attain independence.

Although the current headlines about Malawi are glowing after the recent presidential power transfer, the fate of independent Malawi during the Cold War was a tragic one. Banda was a narcissistic leader. His nickname, Ngwazi (The Conqueror), reflects his autocratic inclinations.  

Just weeks after independence Banda’s cabinet resigned in protest against his retrogressive leadership. Their bold gesture proved futile. In 1971, Banda was declared president-for-life and he stayed in office until democratic elections in 1994. He enjoyed convivial relations with the apartheid government of South Africa and sparred with the first president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere. Short skirts on women and long hair on men were banned.

The historical record shows that the country’s difficulties under Banda were evident at the very moment of Malawi’s founding. His obsequious embrace of Western powers and the presence of the Southern Rhodesian delegation at Malawi’s independence celebrations points to Banda’s penchant for coddling up to superpowers and the region’s racist white governments.

Wooing the West

Banda, who had denounced the British decision to federate Nyasaland with Southern Rhodesia in the early 1950s, forgave all when Malawi became independent. At a banquet with Prince Philip the day before independence he announced: “I am bitter no more. Our quarrel with the British government is over. They are our friends.” Determined to show that this was not rhetoric, Banda left the infant nation just days later to hobnob with world leaders at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference in London. And the colonial governor general, Glyn Jones, remained in office in Malawi for two years.   

Banda also embraced the United States, which had originally been diffident about sending a delegation to the independence celebrations. In a sign of Malawi’s relative inconsequence, the American delegation was led by Rufus Clement, a university president. This did not stop Banda from pursuing a fawning correspondence with president Lyndon Johnson and declaring his support for the Vietnam War, a conflict opposed by the non-aligned nations.

Rhodesian relations

Closer to home, Winston Field, the recently deposed Rhodesian prime minister (who remained an MP in Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front) had been a friend of Banda’s for several years. They bonded over jokes concerning Field’s son, Simon, who was shorter than the diminutive Banda. Field attended the independence celebrations but was not the only member of that government to do so. Smith dispatched his agriculture minister, Lord Angus Graham. Trends were for the isolation of the Rhodesian government and Banda’s decision to host a delegation provided Rhodesia with considerable propaganda value.

The Rhodesian authorities were also probably pleased by Banda’s support for the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). Since Zanu’s founding the previous year, Banda had been an overt supporter of the nationalist faction that broke away from Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu), a fracture that weakened the pressure against Smith’s government.

Zapu spokesperson William Mukurati reported that Zapu had not even been invited to the Malawi independence celebrations. He added: “Even if one had come, we would not have gone where Zanu and the Smith government have also been invited.”

Zanu dispatched a delegation of more than 20 members led by the party’s secretary general, Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe enjoyed congenial relations with Banda after Zimbabwe’s independence — the Malawian leader opened the new Zanu-PF office building in Harare in 1990. But Banda’s embrace of Mugabe was not sustained throughout Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. His enthusiasm for Zanu dimmed when he reached a more overt accommodation with white supremacy. By the end of the 1960s, Banda had clearly abandoned Zimbabwe’s mainstream nationalist movement and thrown his lot in with the small black political parties such as the National People’s Union that participated within the framework of constitutional politics.

Ongoing struggles for full and free political participation in Malawi suggest the country’s formative moment continues to shape political conduct.

Brooks Marmon is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh and incoming post-doctoral fellow at the department of historical and heritage studies, University of Pretoria.

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Brooks Marmon
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