Sept 1964: How Kamuzu Banda and MCP planted seed of tribalism

Exactly 50 years ago, in the first week of September 1964, barely two months after July 6 independence, serious disagreements between Prime Minister, Dr Banda and his Cabinet Minister exploded into the historic Cabinet Crisis on 8 and 9 September. The disagreements began after Dr Banda’s release from Gweru Prison in 1960, and his subsequent leadership of the MCP, and prevailed behind the scenes, only to intensify soon after independence.

The behaviour and practices of Dr Banda that led to the Crisis and the way Dr Banda and the MCP manoeuvred themselves out of the Crisis, and the aftermath, laid the foundation on which pillars of contemporary tribalism and nepotism which haunts us today, are erected.

Kamuzu Banda
Kamuzu Banda

Traces of Tribalism in the Cabinet Crisis

Most people hold the common view that just like in most cases in Africa’s post-colonial governments, tribalism in Malawi was imported by colonial masters, and that the Cabinet Crisis and its aftermath were as a result of mere political differences between Dr Banda and his Cabinet; this is perfectly correct, but it is evident enough that tribalism too played a central causative role in the historic predicament:

For example, first; in the “Kuchawe Manifesto” presented to the Prime Minister on 28 August, less than two weeks before the Crisis, the Cabinet accused Dr Banda not only of dictatorial tendencies, but also of practicing nepotism and favouritism in appointing high government and party positions. Second, the Crisis’ related Cabinet dismissals victimised three Ministers from the North, one from the South and none from the Central where Dr Banda originated from.

Third, Member of Parliament Richard Chidzanja from the Central Region, who was handpicked by Dr Banda to lead MCP in the Central Province, made several tribal statements while the Crisis was at its peak in the House on 8 and 9 September, by continuously saying that him and his fellow “Nyau” and “Chewas,” they supported Dr Banda. He also openly complained bitterly that, “the educated smart young people of the North and of Blantyre had snapped up everything for themselves despising and ignoring the Chewa.”

Fourth, the MCP was mostly purged in the North following the cabinet crisis. Most people that Dr Banda detained were Northerners, and Southerners from Blantyre, Zomba, Chiradzuru, and Thyolo. His own Central region was not touched, apart from Ntcheu district which was cold against the MCP, as still is the case is today.  And fifth, after the Crisis Dr Banda was not really a fan of the North, or Northerners.


Formation of MCP: No Tribalism

To underscore that tribalism in party and national politics was infused by Dr Banda, let me take your memory back to the formation of the MCP. It is of huge importance never to forget that MCP was formed by a Northerner, Orton Chirwa together with a Northern extraordinarily brilliant teenage boy, Aleke Banda in 1959.  This time Dr Banda and the rest of the former NAC leadership members were detained at Gweru Prison in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), following the March 3, 1959 “Operation Sunrise” and State of Emergency.

The newly formed MCP and its leader Orton Chirwa were welcomed with significant number of followers across Nyasaland, and the party quickly became stronger than the NAC. People that had earlier resisted the NAC from some areas of Central Region and Lower Shire welcomed the MCP making a national party having spread into all regions within few months. The people did not care much where the founder of the MCP had originated from.

As a matter of fact, Orton Chirwa, Dunduzu Chisiza, Yatuta Chisiza and Kanyama Chiume were all Northerners that made up the leadership of the former NAC together with Chipembere from the South, and still most people of Nyasaland embraced the NAC and accepted it, and where the party faced resistance it was not because of the tribe of the leaders.

When Dr Banda was released from prison on April 1, 1960, Orton Chirwa offered the leadership of MCP to Dr Banda without considering that Banda was a Chewa, because the dream of a free and independent Malawi was bigger than the lure of power. And this was the second time that Northerners and a Southerner offered leadership to Dr Banda from the Central, as the first was in 1958 when Dr Banda returned to Nyasaland and made leader of the NAC.

Dr Banda and the MCP become Tribal

After he was made leader of MCP, Dr Banda wanted to position himself for the consolidation of his own political power and strengthening of the MCP to his own advantage, which of course was a brilliant Machiavellian strategy.  To achieve this, he had to brand his personal image, and establish a stronghold for the party to secure loyal and unwavering supporters. The branding of his personal image required that the people of Nyasaland look up to him as their only saviour and destroyer of the Federation, and establishment of stronghold meant he had to familiarize himself with people from his region and culture.

This explains why he threw former leader and founder of MCP Chirwa out of public sight and ignored to intervene and facilitate the release of former leaders of NAC at Kanjedza Prison including Chipembere, and the Chisiza brothers.   He then teamed up with a perfect publicist for the job, Kanyama Chiume, who successfully branded him, in one way, by composing great songs, all of them focusing on Kamuzu as the only one to destroy the Federation; songs like Zonse zimene za Kamuzu Banda . Soon everyone was singing about him. He began to publicly praise the Nyau dancers (Chewas) during his speeches. Infact,in some cases Dr Banda used Nyau dancers (Chewas) to raid houses and homes of sympathisers of ex-ministers in the wake of the Cabinet Crisis.


Dr Banda and MCP did not only sow the seed of tribalism, but nurtured it to its full growth for thirty years they stayed in power. Unfortunately, democracy did not weed out this evil, as for the past 20 years of democracy, we have perpetually defined each other along tribal affiliations, vote along tribal considerations, and expect to access educational and economic privileges, and political appointments on tribal respect. Now we even want to split the nation into tribal camps hiding behind institutionalization of a federal government, and the impossible secession. Sad!


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