Was Kamuzu Banda a despot or democrat?: Mungomo series on Ngwazi, Part 1

The Malawi Congress Party recently announced that it would this year be celebrating Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda’s official birthday, the 14th May, scrapped by the UDF in its quest to re-write history. It is very brave of Dr. Lazarus Chakwera to cast all political caution to the wind and finally do it, where his two immediate predecessors dared not.

Ngwazi Kamuzu Banda: Founding president of Malawi

Ngwazi Kamuzu Banda: Founding president of Malawi

It is said after all, that history is written by the victors and UDF attempted to erase all traces of Kamuzu’s legacy. Unfortunately, UDF did not succeed in achieving absolute conquest, especially in the wake of their abysmal failure to efficiently govern, coupled with the fact that Chakufwa Chihana, whom many Malawians beleive brought democracy, lurked in the fringes to stamp his democratic footprint on the country. As the first leader of this country, Kamuzu, honoured by late Bingu wa Mutharika has a place in our history. Like him or hate him, that is immaterial. His legacy shall outlive all of us.

Kamuzu has for many years been given a whole range of descriptive nouns, from Ngwazi, Mpulumutsi, Nkhoswe Number One, Mchikumbe Number One, Mfiti Number One, Alidzi, and Kamuzu’s most favorite being Dr. Destroyer of Federation, given to him by our Zambian brothers amongst the positive. On the other side of the equation, he was described as a thief, murderer, arrogant and heartlesstyrant, iron fisted ruler, and even as a despot.

But who was Dr. Kamuzu Banda really? For those who worked with him, their descriptions range from; kind man, eloquent, workaholic, no nonsense man and even Church elder of the Church of Scotland amongst many more.

In this series, I shall try as much as possible to keep my own views of the man to myself, if that be at all possible! The intention is not to influence how the individual reader sees Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, but to place his legacy in its true context, at least among the rational thinkers. But if my prejudices inadvertently surface, please do forgive me, I am only human after all.

Story is told of how Harun Al Raschid, the caliph of Baghdad, is believed to have disguised himself as a beggar in order to discover for himself, what his subjects thought of his rule. It is quite unthinkable that Kamuzu would have dressed himself as a charcoal seller in order for him to understand what the people of Mbayani or Ndirande thought about him. I would imagine the disdain of the flatterers who clustered around him and indeed of all leaders with absolute power throughout the world from time in memorial.

I have chosen the theme of “despot or democrat” as the starting point in this series. Agreeing as I may with those who say that despotism, is a catch-all category containing, as they say, large variations, I take the view that the West, often views non-European civilizations, or countries almost invariably to have been ruled despotically. We have chiefs in our societies who enjoy absolute power. I dare not even suggest that the Queen of England, the unelected head of State of Britain would be called despotic although all attributes of despotism would be identifiable albeit subtly. By the European, I for the sake of simplicity, include United States of America here.

The Western imagination, and in this I obviously exclude Russia,repelled by despots – cruel Pharaohs of Egypt, deranged Roman Emperors like Caligula and Nero, countries like America, the so called champions of democracy fall desperately short of the ideal form espoused by the Greek. Democracy, at least in European terms, in dealing with all other countries is not by persuasion. The Greeks, in espousing democracy was fundamentally based on the basic assumptionthat citizens were rational, and the only appropriate relationship between rational beings is persuasion. This of course differs from command in assuming equality between speaker and listener.

Just like Europeans do not like the word “corruption” when money in their governments has gone walkies, preferring rather to seductively call it “sleaze”, their form of despotism has hitherto been described in such affable ideals such as those portrayed by Stalin and Hitler. And in governance, oh, well, need I really say who the current day villains are on the world stage? In most recent times, despotism has been defined along with dictatorship and totalitarianism as a form of government. Do as I say, or do as we say or we shall bomb you to smithereens! That, is my understanding of “persuasion” in the so called new world order.

Kamuzu, loved classical languages. He loved Greek and Latin so much so that he went as far as saying that anybody who had not studied Greek or Latin ought not to call themselves educated at all.Kamuzu might have wanted Malawians to understand the principal adopted by the classical Greeks in terms of how they viewed the relationship betweenstate and citizen. When one looks at the value the classical Greeks attached to politics, one might understand why Kamuzu, a very well read man to boot, wanted his little impoverished Nyasaland to develop in leaps and bounds, underpinned by classical knowledge to any “meaning” education.

Although his opponents spoke tongue in cheek about Kamuzu Academy which offered classical languages like Greek and Latin and termed this otherwise oasis of educational excellence as a waste of money, they, behind the backs of their friends, sent their own children to this very school they described as the apex of political decadence. But Kamuzu admired the magnificent cultures of empires such as Egypt or Persia, leaders of the current civilization. His love for agriculture was unrivalled.

There are those that say he loved excellence to a fault. Sanjika Palace was decked in Persian rugs, only to be replaced by synthetic carpets by his successor from Bombay Bazaar or someone in the same race category. As Du Chisiza Jr once said, the walls and of corners of the toilets of this once opulent edifice were turned into the grotesque only matched by the walls of public toilets at Ntcheu bus depot. Common decency limits me from putting into print what he actually said!

It is said that the essence of despotism is its lack of appeal in practice or in law, the unchecked power of the master. The sole object of citizens, or rather subjects must be to please. I dare say Kamuzu did love to be pleased. Every politician after all loves to be described favorably by those they “serve”. And Kamuzu, the Life President, Ngwazi, Destroyer of Federation, I am very sure of it, loved every bit of it! After all, we all sung, willingly or otherwise, “ZonsezimenezaKamuzu Banda”.In his response, he would burst out in song…“Nyadani, nyadani, nyadani lerooooooo! “

His opponents have argued that there was basically nodemocracy in the country, at least by Western standards. Yes, the same Western countries who went to plant democracy in Iraq by first killing Saddam Hussein. Ask not for they are the very ones who have ably introduced the thriving democracy in Libyaand Syria today. In 1993 the British and Americans saidthat there was no Parliament worth talking about in Malawi and political opportunity arose for some within the country and they rightly seized the vacuum created by the otherwise retreating and apologetic MCP.

They said there was no independent judiciary, private property was not protected by law and from the rapacity of power vested in him as the Ngwazi, to whom all else belonged. They actually argued that nobody had any political voice. Were such assertions to be true, oddly enough, Kamuzu ought to have been a spiritual leader, for it is in that realm that such people flourish. But was he? Did he own everything in the land? Did he steal what his apologists otherwise argued he lawfully acquired? Was he this medieval tyrant who took no advice? Would a despot and tyrant relinquish power without a fight? Or was he a man modelled in the likes of Kwame Nkrumah who saw Africa freeing itself through proper education and industrialization? Because this series is not about Nkrumah, but why were his likes the irk of the so called Western democracies as was Patrice Lumumba?

In the next few weeks, we shall unravel who Kamuzu really was. We shall publish verbatim, correspondence between this so called “tyrant”, “thief”, “despot” and a whole range of personalities. From his uncle to political colleagues within the country and outside the country. This, in the absence of an authorized biography, might contextualize Kamuzu Banda and his political legacy. What did Masauko Chipembere think of Dr. Banda? What did Kanyama Chiume say in private correspondence about Chisiza? Does anybody know or remember Mr. Vincent Gondwe? Does a tyrant need to buy land at all? All these questions will be answered in the coming weeks. Hopefully…

  • The author is a former spin doctor of Malawi Congress Party .
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Bring back the champion Mr. TEMBO. He will do good for the Country. He is old but what few years he has got, WILL be good for MALAWI.

what is the use of having this generous, kind hearted leader with no vision for the nation? People’s lifestyles are all time low. There is only one thing that should be on the mind of every leader everyday – What can I do to stimulate the economy, to grow more jobs for the our people and elevate the standard of living? just look at what is happening now. our people are leaving the country for a better life in South Africa. some of them don’t even know how to express themselves in English. working as nannies and Garden boys and… Read more »

Malawi shall never ever have a leader of vision like kamuzu again.Unless God ‘s Blessings are placed on MALAWI .
Atsogoleri a lero wa are all poikilothemics,good for nothing leaders,


Just a dictator but not a despot. He didn’t come into power by force.

Abraham Lincoln

Banda Was Gr8 Leader,


Sapitwa you are just a troubled man in mind, you can’t call The Ngwazi all those names if you really new him,take a look at your country, things that the Ngwazi left still stand tall in our country talk of universities airport s silos roads too numerous to mention. Sapitwa you will die ignorant and your children will be begars for life!!!!


Kamuzu was a man. He built what other idiots are plundering


Kamuzu had class second to non. Simbuzi zamasiku ano, ntchito kulemba makoma mumaPrison.


To Number 15 above: Malawi’s rulers have made a mess of democracy because they don’t fully understand it. There is nothing wrong with democracy per se, it is those who are democratically elected who can’t handle it. It takes many, many years – perhaps hundreds of years – for a country to develop a truly democratic system of government. The Arab states that overthrew their despots will not have a proper functioning democracy for many years into the future, but hopefully it will come in time.

He was a monster who maimed his own people. He deceived himself that there was no one who was better than him. But just one day when we all were tired of him, we showed him that he was no superhuman and we carried him and threw him into retirement being a broken man. He died a broken man that even only Mugabe as a sitting president came to his funeral. Look at Nyerere’s funeral; all African leaders former and sitting were all there. He never developed Malawi because he never allowed to think outside the boxes. I don’t miss… Read more »
Khuth'upa o'Machemba
Sapitwa: Don’t listen to the MCPers’ criticisms. Your comment is succinct and based on facts. Their sentiments are based on nostalgia, nothing else. Anybody who has read factual texts about that regime cannot dispute the atrocities of Kamuzu’s regime. He even acknowledged these crimes himself near the end of his life, when he attempted to apologize to the nation. And he claimed he didn’t know most of what was happening. Malawians would not accept that nonsense! For example, the Nile crocks in the Shire have never had it so good since those days. MCP’s MYP and Youth Leaguers would rain… Read more »

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