Malawi blames deaths on eccentric ex-dictator

January 26, 1995|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff Correspondent

BLANTYRE, Malawi -- The picture of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda was on every bill and coin in the pockets of the 1,000 people who had gathered in front of Malawi's High Court last week. His name -- Kamuzu -- is on the street they had just traversed and on the stadium nearby. It is on airports and hospitals, schools and highways; it is emblazoned just about everywhere.

These people had gathered to witness what a few months ago was nearly unthinkable and without doubt unspeakable: Dr. Banda, the country's one-time president-for-life, was to be subjected to the machinery of justice that had for so long existed only to do his bidding.

Dr. Banda's eccentric, ironclad rule ended last year, after the first multiparty election in this beautiful sliver of a country. (Malawi is home to about 10 million people in 46,000 square miles that hug the shore of Lake Malawi.)

Dr. Banda's party finished second in the voting. And for the first time since the country became independent in 1964, he was no longer president.

For African leaders of Dr. Banda's generation -- the first generation of post-colonial rulers -- being voted out of office has always been the exception, never the rule.

Most of his peers were overthrown in coups -- like Kwame Nkrumah, founding president of Ghana -- or died in office like royalty -- like Jomo Kenyatta, founding president of Kenya.

But Dr. Banda, now nearing 100, lived into an age of accountability.

As one of his first acts as Malawi's new president, Bakili Muluzi set up a commission to look into the deaths of four government officials in 1983. In Dr. Banda's time, it was said the men died in an auto accident. But the commission reported this month that the four had been murdered.

Within days, Dr. Banda and John Tembo, his chief deputy, were arrested and charged with ordering the killings. If convicted, they could be hanged. And their arrest has raised the question faced by every country seeking to make a better future out of a sad past: Is it better to seek justice or forgiveness?

Dr. Banda is probably one of the best-educated Africans of his generation, with degrees from Ohio's Wilberforce University, the University of Chicago and the Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn. During the 1950s, he held court in his London medical offices as an articulate spokesman for the anti-colonial movement that was beginning to sweep Africa.

In the 1950s, leaders of that movement in Malawi -- then the British colony of Nyasaland -- asked him to return, to lead their cause as a respected elder statesman. He did indeed return, spent some time in jail, became the nation's leader once the British left and proclaimed himself president for life.

There were years of misdeeds, even atrocities. They went little noticed by the outside world, in large part because Dr. Banda virtually banned journalists from his country.

What was reported abroad usually focused on his eccentricities: He was always impeccably dressed in Western suits; he spoke only English, not his native Chichewa. He built Kamuzu Academy, an elite school slavishly modeled on England's Eton. He banned long hair on men and insisted women wear skirts instead of trousers, to the dismay of unsuspecting tourists arriving to enjoy Lake Malawi.

The eccentricities masked the horror of a regime that killed thousands and imprisoned thousands more. Anyone thought to be a threat to Dr. Banda's absolute power suffered one of those fates, including many of the nationalist leaders who had invited him to return and lead their movement.

"All I can say is that he must be a cruel man," said Vera Chitwa, who spent 11 years in prison before her 1993 release a few months after her husband died in custody.

"I was only a wall away from my husband during that time, and Dr. Banda never let me see him."

For much of their confinement, the Chitwas were kept in solitary confinement, chained hand and foot. "And to think that when he came back to this country, he slept in our house before he got his own," she said.

The four government officials who died in the alleged car wreck in 1983 had been seen as threats. Three of the officials were Cabinet ministers, the other a member of Parliament.

Testimony before the commission showed that the four officials had been arrested by police as they drove from a Cabinet meeting, taken from jail to a remote stretch of road, blindfolded and beaten on the head with hammers until they died. Their bodies were then put into a Peugeot, which was pushed down an embankment.

"It only went about 20 meters and then it struck a tree," said Robert Mzikamanda, the commission's secretary. "The only damage it sustained was a broken indicator light."

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