One-man rule in Malawi poses dilemma for U.S.

October 13, 1991|By Los Angeles Times

BLANTYRE, Malawi -- When the president of Malawi descended from his mountaintop palace to welcome Vice President Dan Quayle to town in September, the usual throngs )) awaited his red 1964 Rolls-Royce convertible.

Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the 94-year-old president for life, watched solemnly as women in skirts that bore his picture broke into songs of praise. In his right hand, a fly whisk made of a lion's tail moved in time with the music.

Meet one of America's oldest and best friends in Africa. For 27 years, Mr. Banda has ruled one of Africa's most stable, most pro-Western -- and also most repressive -- nations.

But now, with multiparty democracy sweeping Africa and the Soviet threat disappearing, Mr. Banda's fondness for one-man rule presents a foreign policy dilemma for his old friends in the U.S. government.

During his visit to Malawi, Mr. Quayle tried to persuade Mr. Banda's aides to dismantle their one-party system. The vice president was politely rebuffed, and he did not press the point.

An American official said that Mr. Banda's aides had argued that "the stability of an autocratic system makes more progress than the tumult of democracy."

"People say, 'Why are we giving money to a dictator?' " an American diplomat in Malawi said. "But how can we ignore a country that has been a friend for so long and has so many humanitarian needs?"

Malawi's 9 million people are the sixth-poorest in the world. They live on a narrow, landlocked and not particularly fertile parcel of southeastern Africa that is about the size of Kansas. The average monthly income is $6, and the country is heavily dependent on foreign aid, about $250 million a year.

"The long-term potential for this country is not all that bright," a Western economic analyst said. "It's not because they're not trying. But they've been dealt a bad hand."

Part of that bad hand is an AIDS epidemic that has infected at least 10 percent of the population -- or 20 times the rate in the United States. Another problem is the influx of a million refugees from the war in neighboring Mozambique.

Mr. Banda cemented his friendship with Washington in the early 1960s, when he bucked a trend toward socialism in the rest of Africa. He believes in private enterprise, but not necessarily free enterprise. Over the years he has taken a large chunk of the private business sector for himself. And the government spends more to maintain Mr. Banda's six palaces than it does on health.

But even Mr. Banda's detractors acknowledge that he is beloved today by most Malawians.

"Most people are not keen to kick out President Banda," said a Malawian dissident who was released from prison this year.

Mr. Banda had practiced as a doctor in the United States and England for nearly four decades before he returned to lead the liberation struggle against British colonialism.

He was briefly imprisoned, released and -- at the age of 67 -- became the leader of the newly independent Malawi.

Africa Watch, an international human rights group, concluded last year that Malawi's stability "has been bought at a terrible cost of human lives snuffed out or forced to endure years of detention without trial. The best and the brightest of Malawians are eliminated from the scene."

Some Malawians worry that power has already begun to shift from Mr. Banda to his two closest advisers -- longtime companion Cecilia Kadzamira, the "official hostess," and her uncle, John Tembo.

And Mr. Tembo's proximity to power makes him a likely victor when Mr. Banda dies.

But whoever wins, diplomats say, Mr. Banda's legacy of stability and repression will survive.

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