As a Malawian regardless of my current country of residence, this year’s presidential election rerun has weighed heavily on my mind. Malawi and its people deserve the progressive change we have been promised over and over again without much deliverance. We have been treated like a dumped lover who held on to promises of everlasting love, growth and happiness by a trickster whose ability to love does not go beyond themself. So they say do not be afraid to give love one more chance, so here we are again, giving our politicians another chance. Just how did we get here? The history of Malawi started with a dynasty known as the Maravi Empire founded by the Amaravi people in the late 15th century. The name Malawi is thought to derive from the word Maravi meaning “Flames” and may have come from the sight of many kilns lighting up the night sky.
According to The Commonwealth website, the area is mentioned in early Arab writings and Portuguese writings of the 17th and 18th centuries. The pre-colonial Maravi Empire was a loosely organised society covering an expanse of territory well beyond present-day Malawi and encompassed first the Chewa and later the Tumbuka ethnic groups. The Yao from the north and the Ngoni made successful invasions during the 19th century. The Yao became involved in the commercial slave trade, acting as agents for the coastal Arabs. David Livingstone visited Lake Malawi (then called Lake Nyasa) in 1859 and was followed in succeeding decades by British missionaries, traders and planters. This was an unsettled period, with widespread slave raiding.
In 1891, Britain declared the country the British Protectorate of Nyasaland. In 1953 the UK federated Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). The Federation was vigorously opposed and, in 1958, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned home from Ghana, at the invitation of the Nyasaland African Congress, to lead the fight against it. The government declared a state of emergency in 1959 and arrested Banda and other members of Congress. Following his release in 1960, a series of constitutional conferences were held, as were elections. Internal self-government was achieved in 1963, the Federation was dissolved and Malawi attained independence and joined the Commonwealth on 6 July 1964, with Banda as Prime Minister.
In 1966 Malawi became a republic, with Banda as President. A new constitution gave the President, who was also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, widespread powers. He held several ministerial portfolios, including External Affairs, Agriculture, Justice and Works. Malawi became a one-party state, with the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) as the sole party. The following decade saw widespread political unrest, much of it arising from splits and rivalries. Pressure for democratic reform intensified at the end of the 1980s.
Over 78 per cent of the adult population voted in the referendum on 14 June 1993, and 63 per cent supported a multiparty system. The constitution was accordingly amended. Banda also announced an amnesty for all Malawians imprisoned or exiled for political activities. Laws passed by the National Assembly in November 1993 committed Malawi to human rights including freedom of expression. The Constitution (Amendment) Act introduced a bill of rights, the title of life President (which had been assumed by Banda in 1971) was dropped from the constitution and several restrictive laws were repealed. Presidential and parliamentary elections were held for the first time in May 1994 and won by Bakili Muluzi.
Being a Malawian born in the 90s, I have often wondered what living in the era of colonisation and before the multi-party democratic system we have now was like. It is worth noting that the Malawian past with its segregation and suppression of human rights had so many challenges but so does the present with its excessive corruption and increasing poverty. In 2020, some 6.8 million people were eligible to vote in Tuesday, 23 June’s rerun, which is a mostly a race between current president Peter Mutharika and opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera. The election is much anticipated after the Constitutional Court in early February ruled that the May 2019 vote was fraught with “grave and widespread irregularities”, including the use of correction fluid on results sheets.
While we wait for the results of this much anticipated presidential election to be out, as we hope for a well-deserved future that is overdue, I compiled a list of photos from old Malawi as a visual reminder of where we have come from and where we need to be finally going.
Robert Cleland’s old house, Chiradzulu, Malawi, ca.1910.
Dr Banda with members of parliament outside the old Parliament in Zomba Malawi
Zomba, Malawi. May, 1962
Old Lilongwe, Malawi
Old Standard Bank, Blantyre, Malawi.
Images via: Wikimedia Commons