Hastings Banda

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Hastings Banda

Hastings Kamuzu Banda (1896 - November 25, 1997) was the leader of Malawi and its predecessor state, Nyasaland, from 1961 to 1994. After receiving much of his education overseas, Banda returned to his home country (then British Nyasaland) to speak against colonialism and help lead the movement towards independence. In 1963, he was formally appointed Nyasaland’s prime minister, and led the country to independence as Malawi a year later. Two years later, he declared Malawi a republic with himself as president. He quickly consolidated power and eventually declared Malawi a one party state under the Malawi Congress Party. In 1970, the party declared him the president for Life. In 1971, he became President for Life of Malawi itself. A leader of the pro-Western bloc in Africa, he received support from the West during the cold war. He generally supported women’s rights, improved the country’s infrastructure, and maintained a good educational system relative to other African countries. On the debit side, however, he presided over one of the most repressive regimes in Africa committing numerous human rights abuses. He also faced scorn for maintaining full diplomatic relations with apartheid-era South Africa.

By 1993, facing international pressure and widespread protest, a referendum ended his one party state, and a special assembly stripped him of his title. Banda ran for president in the democratic elections which followed, but was soundly defeated. He died in South Africa in 1997. His legacy as ruler of Malawi remains controversial, some hailing him as a national and African hero, some denouncing him as a political tyrant. Like some other African leaders, he amassed a personal fortune despite the continued poverty of his nation. Well educated, he seemed the ideal choice to lead the anti-colonial struggle. However, once in office he proved vain, greedy, and more interested in maintaining power than in solving the many problems that faced his nation. Colonialism must share some of the blame for the large number of similar regimes that found it easy to gain and retain power in newly independent nations. These did not have mature democratic institutions or well developed civil societies, which are necessary for democracy to flourish.

Early life

Kamuzu Banda was born near Kasungu in Malawi (then British Central Africa) to Mphonongo Banda and his wife Akupingamnyama Phiri. His date of birth is unknown, and as it took place at a time when there was no birth registration, it is impossible to state a precise year. His biographer, Philip Short, gives February 1898 as the most likely date.[1] His official birthday is stated as May 14, 1906, and this date is contained in some biographical guides. However, his death certificate states him to have been 99 years old and it was rumored that he was actually 101. There is no proof the report of his age was accurate. He took the Christian name of Hastings after being baptized into the Church of Scotland in around 1905. Around 1915-16, he left home and went with Hanock Msokera Phiri, an "uncle" who had been a teacher at the nearby Livingstonia mission school, on foot to Hartley in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) and then, in 1917, and again on foot, to Johannesburg in South Africa. He worked in various jobs at the Witwatersrand Deep Mine on the Transvaal Reef for several years. During this time, he met Bishop W. T. Vernon of the African Methodist Church (AME), who offered to pay his tuition at a Methodist school in the United States if he could make his own passage. In 1925, he left for New York.

Life abroad (1925–1958)

Banda studied in the high school section of Wilberforce Institute, a black AME college (now Central State University) in Wilberforce, Ohio, and graduated in 1928. With his financial support now ended, Banda earned some money on speaking engagements arranged by the Ghanaian educationalist, Kweyir Aggrey, whom he had met in South Africa. Speaking at a Kiwanis club meeting, he met one Dr Herald, with whose help he enrolled as a premedical student at Indiana University, where he lodged with Mrs. W.N. Culmer. At Bloomington, he wrote several essays about his native Chewa tribe for the folklorist Stitt Thompson, who introduced him to Edward Sapir, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago, to which, after four semesters, he transferred. During his period here, he collaborated with the anthropologist and linguist, Mark Hanna Watkins, acting as an informant on Chewa culture.

In Chicago, he lodged with an African-American, Mrs. Corinna Saunders. He majored in history, graduating with a B Phil in 1931. During this time, he enjoyed financial support from a Mrs. Smith, whose husband, Douglas Smith, had made fortunes in patent medicines and in Pepsodent toothpaste; and also from a member of the Eastman Kodak board. He then, still with financial support from these and other benefactors (including Dr. Walter B. Stephenson of the Delta Electric Company), studied medicine at Meharry Medical College in Tennessee, from which he graduated in 1937. In order to practice medicine in territories of the British Empire he was required to take a second medical degree; he attended and graduated from the School of Medicine of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of the University of Edinburgh in 1941. His studies there were funded by stipends of 300 pounds per year from the government of Nyasaland (in order to facilitate his return there as a doctor) and from the Scottish Presbyterian Kirk; neither of these benefactors being aware of the other. There are conflicting accounts of this, however. He may still have been funded by Mrs. Smith. When he enrolled for courses in tropical diseases in Liverpool, the Nyasaland government terminated his stipend.

He was forced to leave Liverpool when he refused on conscientious grounds to be conscripted as an Army doctor. Between 1942 and 1945, he worked as a doctor in North Shields near Newcastle on Tyne. He was a tenant of Mrs. Amy Walton at this time in Alma Place in North Shields and sent a Christmas card to her every year right up to her death in the late 1960s. He worked at a mission for colored seamen before moving to a general practice in the London suburb of Harlesden. Reportedly, he avoided returning to Nyasaland for fear that his newfound financial resources would be consumed by his extended family back home.

In 1946, at the behest of Chief Mwase of Kasungu, whom he had met in England in 1939, and other politically active Malawians, he represented the Nyasaland African Congress at the fifth Pan African Congress in Manchester. From this time he took an increasingly active interest in his native land, advising the Congress and providing it some financial support. With help from sympathetic British, he also lobbied in London on their behalf. He was actively opposed to the efforts of Sir Roy Welensky, premier of Southern Rhodesia, to form a federation between Southern and Northern Rhodesia with Nyasaland, a move which he feared would result in further deprivation of rights for the Nyasaland blacks. The (as he famously called it) "stupid" Federation was formed in 1953. It was rumored with some excitement that he would return to Nyasaland in 1951, but in the event he moved instead to the Gold Coast in West Africa. He may have gone there partly because of a scandal involving his receptionist in Harlesden, a Mrs. French: Banda was cited as correspondent in the divorce of Major French and accused of adultery with Mrs. French, who went with him to West Africa. (Mrs. French died penniless in 1976.) Several influential Congress leaders, including Henry Chipembere, Kanyama Chiume, Dunduzu Chisiza and T.D.T. Banda (no relation) pleaded with him to return to Nyasaland to take up leadership of their cause, and on July 6, 1958, he did eventually return home after an absence of about 42 years. In August, at Nkata Bay, he was acclaimed as the leader of the Congress.

Return to his homeland

He soon began touring the country, speaking against the Central African Federation (also known as the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland), and urging its citizens to become members of the party. (Allegedly, he was so out of practice in his native Chichewa that he needed an interpreter, a role which was apparently performed by John Msonthi and later by John Tembo, who remained close to him for most of his career). He was received enthusiastically wherever he spoke, and belligerence among the Malawians became increasingly common. To "his surprise" he discovered that he had a gift for mob oratory." Despite the heat, he always wore a three-piece suit and a homburg hat.[2] By February 1959, the situation had become serious enough that Rhodesian troops were flown in to help keep order and a state of emergency was declared. On March 3, Banda, along with hundreds of other Africans, was arrested in the course of "Operation Sunrise." He was imprisoned in Gwelo (now Gweru) in Southern Rhodesia, and leadership of the Malawi Congress Party (the Nyasaland African Congress under a new name) was temporarily assumed by Orton Chirwa, who was released from prison in August 1959. He later described his time in prison as "the best turn the British ever did for me."[3]

The mood in Britain, meanwhile, had long been moving toward relinquishing the colonies. Banda was released from prison in April 1960, and was almost immediately invited to London for talks aimed at bringing about independence. Elections were held in August 1961. While Banda was technically nominated as Minister of Land, Natural Resources and Local Government, he became de facto Prime Minister of Nyasaland—a title granted to him formally on February 1, 1963. He and his fellow MCP ministers quickly expanded secondary education, reformed the so-called Native Courts, ended certain colonial agricultural tariffs and made other reforms. In December 1962, R. A. Butler, British Secretary of State for African Affairs, essentially agreed to end the Federation. On July 6, 1964—exactly six years after his return to the country—Nyasaland became the independent Commonwealth of Malawi.

It was Banda himself who chose the name "Malawi" for the former Nyasaland; he had seen it on an old French map as the name of a "Lake Maravi" in the land of the Bororos, and liked the sound and appearance of the word as "Malawi."

President of Malawi

Barely a month after independence, Malawi suffered a cabinet crisis. Several of Banda's ministers presented him with proposals designed to limit his powers. He'd already been accused of autocratic tendencies. Banda responded by dismissing four of the ministers, and two others resigned in sympathy. The dissidents fled the country.

Malawi adopted a new constitution on July 6, 1966, in which the country was declared a republic. Banda was elected the country's first president for a five-year term; he was the only candidate. The new document granted Banda wide executive and legislative powers, and also formally made the MCP the only legal party. However, the country had been a de facto one-party state since independence. In 1970, a congress of the MCP declared Banda its president for life. In 1971, the legislature declared Banda President for Life of Malawi as well. His official title was His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malaŵi, Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. The title Ngwazi means "chief of chiefs" (more literally, "great lion," or, some would say, "conqueror") in Chicheŵa.

Banda was mostly viewed externally as being a benign, albeit eccentric, leader, an image fostered by his English-style three-piece suits, matching handkerchiefs and fly-whisk.[4] In June 1967, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Massachusetts with the encomium "…pediatrician to his infant nation."

Within Malawi, views on him ranged from a cult-like devotion to fear. While he portrayed himself as a caring headmaster to his people, his government was rigidly authoritarian even by African standards of the time. Although the constitution guaranteed civil rights and liberties, they meant almost nothing in practice, and Malawi was essentially a police state. Mail was opened and often edited. Telephones were tapped. Needless to say, overt opposition was not tolerated. Banda actively encouraged the people to report those who criticized him, even if they were relatives. Telephone conversations were known to be cut off if anyone said a critical word about the government. Opponents were often arrested, exiled (like Kanyama Chiume) or killed (like Dick Matenje or Dr Attati Mpakati). He once said that he would happily detain tens of thousands to maintain "national security" and an "efficient administration."[5] Opponents were not safe in exile; assassinations were carried out by the secret service.[6]

Banda was the subject of a very pervasive cult of personality. Every business building was required to have an official picture of Banda hanging on the wall, and no poster, clock or picture could be higher than his picture. Before every movie, a video of Banda waving to the people was shown while the anthem played. When Banda visited a city, a contingent of women were expected to greet him at the airport and dance for him. A special cloth, bearing the president’s picture, was the required attire for these performances. Churches had to be government sanctioned. All movies shown in theaters were first viewed by the Malawi Censorship Board and edited for content. Videotapes had to be sent to the Censorship Board to be viewed by censors. Once edited, the movie was given a sticker stating that it was now suitable for viewing, and sent back to the owner. Items to be sold in bookstores were also edited. Pages, or parts of pages, were cut out of magazines like Newsweek and Time. The press and radio were tightly controlled, and mainly served as outlets for government propaganda. Television was banned.

His government supervised the people's lives very closely. Early in his rule, Banda instituted a dress code which was rooted in his socially conservative predilections. For example, women were not allowed to bare their thighs or to wear trousers. Banda argued that the dress code was not instilled to oppress women but to encourage honor and respect for them. For men, long hair and beards were banned as a sign of dissent. Men could be seized and forced to have a haircut on the discretion of border officials or police. Kissing in public was not allowed, nor were movies which contained depictions of kissing. Pre-Banda history was discouraged, and many books on these subjects were burned. Banda also allegedly persecuted some of the northern tribes (particularly the Tumbuka), banning their language and books as well as teachers from certain tribes. Europeans who broke any of these rules were often "PI'ed" (declared Prohibited Immigrants and deported).

All adult citizens were required to be members of the MCP. Party cards had to be carried at all times, and had to be presented in random police inspections. The cards were sold, often by Banda's Malawi Youth Pioneers. In some cases, these youths even sold cards to unborn children.

Even foreigners were subjected to Banda's dress code. In the 1970s, prospective visitors to the country were met with the following requirement for obtaining visas:

Female passengers will not be permitted to enter the country if wearing short dresses or trouser-suits, except in transit or at Lake Holiday resorts or National parks. Skirts and dresses must cover the knees to conform with Government regulations. The entry of "hippies" and men with long hair and flared trousers is forbidden.

Nonetheless, Banda was very supportive of women's rights compared to other African rulers during his reign. He founded Chitukuko Cha Amai m'Malawi (CCAM) to address the concerns, needs, rights, and opportunities for women in Malawi. This institution also motivated women to excel both in education and government and encouraged them to play more active roles in their community, church and family. The foundation's National Advisor was Cecilia Tamanda Kadzamira, the official hostess for the former president.

Banda did much for the country's infrastructure. This included the establishment of major roads, airports, hospitals and schools in Malawi. He founded Kamuzu Academy, a school modeled on Eton, at which Malawian children were taught Latin and Ancient Greek by expatriate classics teachers, and disciplined if they were caught speaking Chichewa.

During Banda's rule, it is believed that he accumulated at least US$320 million in personal assets, believed to be invested in everything from agriculture to mining interests in South Africa. The most controversial part of this is the suspicion that his two grandchildren, who currently reside in the U.S. and South Africa, are the heirs to the Banda fortune. One of the grandchildren graduated from law school and left for the U.S., while the other remains in South Africa.

He was also the only African ruler to establish diplomatic ties with South Africa during apartheid and on one occasion he paid a state visit to South Africa where he met his South African counterparts at Stellenbosch. While many southern African nations traded with South Africa out of economic necessity, Malawi was the only African nation that recognized South Africa and exchanged embassies with it. He only became partially rehabilitated in the eyes of other African leaders after the demise of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Electoral defeat and death

Opening ceremony for the Banda Mausoleum, May 14, 2006 - Lilongwe, Malawi

Banda's one-party state was dismantled by a 1993 referendum. Diamond says that this followed pressure from "foreign aid donors" to "open up politically."[6] Soon afterward, a special assembly stripped him of his title of President for Life, along with most of his powers.

After some questions about his health, Banda ran in Malawi's first truly democratic election in 1994. He was roundly defeated by Bakili Muluzi, a Yao from the Southern Region of the country whose two terms in office were not without serious controversy. Banda died in a hospital in South Africa in November 1997, reportedly aged 101. The party he led since taking over from Orton Chirwa in 1960, the Malawi Congress Party, continued after his death and remains a major force in Malawian politics.


Diamond describes Banda as a "vain, eccentric dictator." He repressed civil society, tightly controlled the press, crushed opposition, and bullied the public through the military's youth wing.[6] In 1963, he said "anything I say is law" and in 1969 following a court verdict he disliked he dismissed the entire judiciary and vested traditional courts will judicial authority.[7] Kadri say that thousands of people were executed following traditional court hearings but that since records were not kept the exact number is unknown. Efforts to try him for crimes against humanity failed because he was declared too ill to stand trial.

The exact size of his fortune remains unknown. Shortly after his death, his death certificate went missing which hampered a court appointed inquiry. However, according to the BBC this had amounted to "$445m in cash and several millions more in fixed and disposable assets."[8]

In 2001, Banda's grave was overgrown with weeds and the Malawi government announced plans to build a new memorial for him. A minister said that "despite Dr Banda's history of human rights abuses, the dictator was Malawi's founding father and he should be accorded all the respect befitting such a man."[9]

Highly intelligent and educated, Bandu was well-placed to lead his nation in its anti-colonial struggle. On the other hand, he had no political training or experience before his return to Malawi in 1958. The British and other colonial powers saw themselves as trustees of people who needed guidance and nurture before they would be able to govern themselves. However, since the colonized had very limited opportunity to participate in governance, their was no apprenticeship available. The British were proud of their own democracy but did little to lay down solid democratic foundations in many of their colonies, although they did in some. Bandu ruled, in many respects, as he had seen the British rule; as they imprisoned him for opposing their rule so he imprisoned those who opposed him.

Democracy's struggle to flourish in many former colonies. Banda is not the only President of an African state who Presidents became President "for life," denied political freedom, accumulated a vast fortune while impoverishing the country. However, such leaders led countries that lacked a solid civil society foundation on which democracy could be built. Bandu did not want civil society to flourish because he knew that this would result in opposition to tyrannical rule. Subsequent to his rule, civil society has started to take root in Malawi and democratic institutions have matured. The country has a multi-party democracy and has depended less on foreign aid.

Preceded by:
Prime Minister of N yasaland
1961–1964 (de facto until 1963)
Succeeded by:
himself as Prime Minister of Malawi
Preceded by:
himself as Prime Minister of Nyasaland
Prime Minister of Malawi
Succeeded by:
himself as President
Preceded by:
himself as Prime Minister
President of Malawi
Succeeded by:
Bakili Muluzi


  1. Short (1974), 5.
  2. Meredith (2006), 86.
  3. Meredith (2006), 92.
  4. Symbol of traditional authority in Africa.
  5. Meredith (2006), 176.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Diamond (2008), 253.
  7. Sadakat Kadri, "Prosecuting Hastings Banda in Malawi," in Lattimer, Mark and Philippe Sands, Justice for Crimes Against Humanity (Oxfrod, UK: Hart. ISBN 9781841134130), 346.
  8. Raphael Tenthani, Mystery of the Banda Millions, BBC. Retrieved December 21, 2008.
  9. Raphael Tenthani, Hi-tech upgrade for Band memorial, BBC. Retrieved December 21, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Diamond, Larry Jay. 2008. The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World. New York, NY: Times Books/Henry Holt and Co. ISBN 9780805078695.
  • Meredith, Martin. 2006. The Fate of Africa: From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair. New York, NY: Public Affairs. ISBN 9781586482466.
  • Mwakikagile, Godfrey. 2006. Africa After Independence: Realities of Nationhood with Photos. Dar es Salaam, TZ: Continental Press. ISBN 9780620355407.
  • Rotberg, Robert I. 1965. The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa; the Making of Malawi and Zambia, 1873-1964. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Short, Philip. 1974. Banda. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul. ISBN 9780710076311.
  • Van Donge, Jan Kees, 1995. Kamuzu's legacy: The democratization of Malawi. African Affairs. 94(375): 227.
  • Williams, T. David. 1978. Malawi, the Politics of Despair. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 9780801411496.


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