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After an extra-ordinary but altogether unassuming life as an ex-patriot black African doctor in Britain during the colonial era, Hastings Banda soon became a dictator once in power in Malawi. His contradictions were many, and he left people wondering how the doctor had become Hastings Banda, Life President of Malawi.
Extremist: Opposing Federation and Supporting Apartheid
Even while abroad, Hastings Banda was being drawn into nationalist politics in Nyasaland. The tipping piont seems to have been the decision by the British colonial government to join Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia to form the Central African Federation. Banda was vehemently against federation, and several times, nationalist leaders in Malawi asked him to return home to lead the fight.
For reasons that are not completely clear, Banda remained in Ghana until 1958, when he finally returned to Nyasaland and threw himself into politics. By 1959, he had been jailed for 13 months for his opposition to federation, which he saw as a device for ensuring that Southern Rhodesia - which was governed by a white minority - retained control over the majority black populations of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. In Africa Today, Banda declared that if opposition made him an “extremist”, he was happy to be one. “Nowhere in history,' he said, “did the so-called Moderates accomplish anything.”
Yet, despite his stance against the oppression of Malawi's population, as a leader Banda had too few qualms, many people thought, about the oppression of South Africa's black population. As President of Malawi, Banda worked closely with the Apartheid South African government and did not speak out against the radical segregation to the south of Malawi's borders. This juxtaposition between his self-proclaimed extremism and the real politique of his international rule was just one of the many contradictions that confused and bewildered people about President Hastings Banda.
Prime Minister, President, Life President, Exile
As the long awaited leader of the nationalist movement, Banda was an obvious choice for Prime Minister as Nyasaland moved toward independence, and it was he who changed the name of the country to Malawi. (Some say he liked the sound of Malawi, which he found on a pre-colonial map.)
It was soon evident how Banda intended to rule. In 1964, when his cabinet tried to limit his powers, he had four of the ministers dismissed. Others resigned and several fled the country and lived in exile for the rest of their lives or his reign, which ever ended first. In 1966, Banda oversaw the writing of a new constitution and ran unopposed for election as Malawi's first president. From then forward, Banda ruled as an absolutist. The state was him, and he was the state. In 1971, the parliament named in President for Life.
As President, Banda enforced his rigid sense of morality on the people of Malawi. His rule became known for oppression, and people feared his paramilitary Malawi Young Pioneers group. He supplied the largely agrarian population with fertilizer and other subsidies, but the government also controlled prices, and so few but the elite benefited from surplus crops. Banda believed in himself and his people, though. When he ran in a contested, democratic election in 1994, he was shocked to be roundly defeated. He left Malawi, and died three years later in South Africa.
A Fraud or a Puritan?
The juxtaposition of Banda's demeanor as the quiet doctor in Britain and his later years as a dictator, combined with his inability to speak his native language inspired a number of conspiracy theories. Many thought he was not even from Malawi, and some claimed that the real Hastings Banda had died while abroad, and been replaced by a carefully chosen imposter.
There is something fiery about most puritanical people though. The same inner drive that leads them to renounce and denounce such common acts as kissing (Banda banned public kissing in Malawi and even censured movies he thought had too much kissing) and it is in this thread of Banda's personality that a connection can be drawn between the quiet, kind doctor and the dictatorial Big Man he became.
Banda, Hastings K. “Return to Nyasaland,” Africa Today 7.4 (1960): 9.
Dowden, Richard. “Obituary: Dr. Hastings Banda,” Independent 26 November 1997.
“Hastings Banda,” Economist, November 27, 1997.
Kamkwamba, William and Bryan Mealer, The Boy who Harnessed the Wind. New York: Harper Collins, 2009.
'Kanyarwunga', “Malawi; The Incredible True Story of Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda,” History of Africa Otherwise blog, November 7, 2011.