Change Comes to Malawi

May 27, 1994

After 30 years of oppressive dictatorship, the country held a free election. The dictator came in second place out of three and graciously conceded defeat. The new president promised him honorable retirement and began to sweep out deadwood and bring modernization, with no witch-hunt against the old regime. People danced in the dusty roads. No one died. This is the way things are supposed to work. In Malawi, they did.

Once it was called Nyasaland, a British possession linked to Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) in a federation that made economic sense but politically was camouflage for white minority rule.

The man who stopped that was a remarkable figure born at the turn of the century. Schooled by Scottish missionaries, Hastings Kamuzu Banda walked to South Africa, then went to the United States to study at Wilberforce Academy in Ohio, the universities of Indiana and Chicago, and Meharry Medical College in Tennessee. He practiced medicine in England and Ghana before returning to his homeland to agitate for freedom.

The British imprisoned him and let him out to govern. The federation was dissolved and Nyasaland gained independence as Malawi in 1964. He was elected prime minister, converted himself to president-for-life and never allowed another election or opposition. He went against the trend of socialist slogans, claiming to be pro-Western and pro-business. Remittances from workers in South Africa kept Malawi afloat long after most African leaders said they were boycotting South Africa. Nothing changed in Malawi, which now has 10 million people, except that Dr. Banda grew older.

The end of the Cold War removed his value as a bulwark against communism. International institutions began withholding aid and pressing for democracy. A lot of people say this doesn't work. In Malawi, it did. The departing dictator hailed his own defeat as ushering in, along with transition in South Africa, a new era for Africa.

He was the last of the strong men of African independence. Of his era of founders of African states, only President Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara of Gambia survives in power.

The new leader is Bakili Muluzi, who quit Dr. Banda's cabinet more than a decade ago and went into business, a Muslim in a predominantly Christian and dreadfully poor country. Mr. Muluzi starts out promising to liberate, modernize and develop Malawi after the 30-year sleep. If he is good to his word, the argument that democracy is alien to Africa will have been severely weakened.

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