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Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Malawi

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1991
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1990 - Malawi, 1 January 1991, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca29e.html [accessed 28 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Events of 1990

Human Rights Developments

The small Central African country of Malawi remained largely unaffected by the agitation for multiparty democracy and human rights which swept through many of its neighbors in 1990. Since independence in 1964, Malawi has been under the highly autocratic and idiosyncratic rule of Life-President Dr. Kamuzu Banda. Malawi is a one-party state, but even members of the ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP) are not immune from the whims of the nonagenarian President and his tiny circle of advisors. Among those currently detained without charge is a former secretary-general of the party, Aleke Banda (no relation to the President), who has been in custody since 1980. Another individual detained throughout 1990 was Margaret Marango Banda (also no relation), chairwoman of the northern region of the national women's organization, the Chitukuko Cha Amai Mu Malawi (Development of Women in Malawi), or CCAM. She was arrested in 1988, apparently because she criticized corruption in the running of the CCAM, but she has not been charged. A former government minister, Gomile Kuntumanji, died in Chichiri Prison in April. He had been held without charge since 1969.

Regulations in force since 1965 empower the authorities to detain without charge, and without even the semblance of a review of the detainee's case. Africa Watch knows of no releases of those detained under these regulations since 1986. One prisoner, Machipisa Munthali, has been held since 1965. Also detained is Jack Mapanje, the country's best known poet, who was arrested in 1987. He is held at Mikuyu Prison, near Zomba, the country's main detention center. No reason has been given for his detention, but it may have been for plans to publish a volume of poetry which would have been obliquely critical of Banda's style of government. Rigid censorship is in force, with bans on circulation applying to works of many of the West's best known literary figures, as well as to books on the Soviet Union or other Communist states.

Official control over the domestic news media is complete, and is enforced by periodic detention of journalists. In February 1990, the only foreign correspondents based in the country, Mike Hall and Melinda Ham, were expelled without explanation. They previously had been obliged to leave the country, in October 1989, while their work permits were renewed, apparently because Hall had written about the common practice of forcing people to buy party cards. While Hall was out of the country in late 1989, he gave interviews to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) about human rights in Malawi, which may have contributed to his eventual expulsion.

The hostility to books and the press is only one of the more visible signs of a highly organized system for suppressing dissent. Malawi exhibits an unusual degree of totalitarian control for an African country, with rigid control of all institutions of political and civil society. The legal profession, for example, is impotent because all important cases are heard before "traditional courts" where lawyers have no right to be heard and judges are answerable directly to the President. The Protestant churches are largely held in thrall by Banda's position as an elder of the Church of Scotland. The localities are policed by members of the party and the paramilitary Young Pioneers, who sell party cards and eavesdrop on "subversive" talk. A sugar company employee, Thoza Konje, spent the whole of 1990 in detention after he had been overheard in a barroom conversation criticizing the government's ethnically discriminatory policy of redeploying teachers to their region of origin. Another man who spent the year behind bars was Dr. George Mtafu, the country's only neurosurgeon. He, too, had criticized official discrimination against Tumbuka speakers from northern Malawi.

On March 18, 1990, police shot dead more than 20 protestors in the capital, Lilongwe, in an incident which showed both the ruthlessness of the Malawian state and the level of popular dissatisfaction. The incident was sparked by the failure of the police to prosecute a businessman who had beaten one of his employees to death for alleged theft. The dead man, a Mozambican refugee, was a truck driver accused of stealing a bag of maize. It is claimed that the businessman bribed a senior police officer to avoid prosecution – the third time he had done this. The businessman was also believed to be an associate of a senior presidential advisor.

Because the dead man had no family in Malawi, his body was to be handed over to the local party branch in the suburb of Kawale, where he had lived. Party officials, reflecting popular discontent, refused to accept the body. On March 18, the ambulance containing the body set off from the mortuary under armed police guard. Angry local residents threw stones at the convoy, and the police responded by opening fire, killing more than 20 and injuring others. Many of those who died were passers-by who were unconnected with the protest. The massacre went unreported in the Malawian press (and elsewhere, since the only resident foreign correspondents had been expelled the previous month). However, a few days later both the Inspector General of Police and the Police Commissioner for the Central Region were dismissed.

A particularly appalling practice which apparently continued unchecked in 1990 was the so-called "hard-core program," introduced in the early 1980s as a punishment for recalcitrant criminal offenders. Victims are sent to Nsanje or Dzeleka prisons, where they are chained naked to the floor of their cells and either fed on one-quarter rations or denied food altogether. Few are believed to survive this treatment. In 1990, Africa Watch obtained the names of a number of prisoners alleged to have died as a result of the hard-core regimen.

US Policy

Malawi's relationship with the United States has long recovered from an early hiccup in 1965, when Ambassador Sam P. Gilstrap was expelled over the presence in the US of a senior Malawian opposition figure. The party newspaper thundered at the time: "Malawi will not tolerate the Reds and Yankees to interfere in our affairs." However, Gilstrap soon returned and Malawi later indicated that it supported US policy in Vietnam "one hundred and fifty percent."11

The Bush administration's attitude toward the Banda government, like that of earlier US administrations, is warm. In a report to Congress, it stated:

Malawi has been a reliable partner in helping to bring about peaceful change in southern Africa. Malawi has also been a valuable force for moderation, maintaining a dialogue with South Africa while moving to improve its relations with Mozambique and Zimbabwe. U.S. security assistance helps Malawi to continue this role, and to maintain its current orientation and policies, thus contributing to stability in this sensitive region. Moreover, the security relationship serves as a symbol, to friends and adversaries, of continued U.S. readiness to play an active and constructive role in southern Africa.12

According to the most recently available comparative data, the US was Malawi's fourth largest bilateral aid donor, with $18 million given in 1987 (out of a total received of $205.7 million).13 Aid requested for fiscal year 1991 totaled $25 million (with the possibility that this would be increased to about $40 million), compared with an estimated $21.5 million in FY 1990. Military aid increased from $1.4 million in FY 1989 to an estimated $2.2 million in FY 1990, before being reduced to approximately $1 million in FY 1991.14 In January 1990, USAID announced the cancellation of $40 million of Malawi's bilateral debt to the US on the strength of Malawi's commitment to reform programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).15

One of the stated objectives of US policy is to "[m]aintain good relations with Malawi, and influence with the military, while encouraging respect for human rights."16 It is not immediately apparent how this is to be achieved. The bulk of military aid in 1991 will consist of Foreign Military Sales financing for aircraft, equipment and weapons. The International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, as applied to Malawian personnel, has no stated human rights component.

The US has consistently voted in favor of loans to Malawi in the IMF and World Bank. In 1983, Malawi received a three-year loan of SDR81 million17 from the IMF, which has been followed by a further loan of SDR55.8 million to support structural economic reform. The World Bank made three structural-adjustment loans between 1981 and 1985. The third was for $114 million and was followed by a supplementary credit of $40 million financed by the World Bank, Japan, Britain and the Federal Republic of Germany. Since 1987, the World Bank has concentrated on loans to different sectors of the Malawian economy, with the emphasis on agriculture. In April 1990, World Bank directors approved a $70 million loan for "adjustment" in the agricultural sector.18

The reports on Malawi in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices have generally been critical and, in recent years, accurate, although sometimes with strange gaps of information. Thus, the 1988 report stated that ethnic and regional tensions were insignificant at the very moment when the government was embarking on a purge of northerners from the civil service and education system. The 1989 report, which corrected that error, stated that the US had attempted to raise the case of Jack Mapanje with President Banda. Africa Watch has also heard independent accounts of US embassy officials attempting to raise human rights concerns with the Malawian government. While these efforts are commendable, it is unfortunate that they should coincide with a large increase in military assistance to Malawi and the rescheduling of bilateral debt. The combined message conveyed to the Malawian government by these measures is clearly the opposite of the Bush administration's professed revulsion over human rights abuses.

A concurrent resolution submitted by Rep. William Green in Congress in May 1990 requests the Secretary of State to condition US military and economic assistance to Malawi on a marked improvement in respect for human rights. It also urges the administration to channel humanitarian assistance through nongovernmental organizations, focusing on development programs that benefit the Malawian people and Mozambican refugees. The resolution also requests the Malawian government to allow human rights organizations such as Africa Watch and Amnesty International to conduct investigative missions in Malawi.19

The Work of Africa Watch

At the end of 1989, Africa Watch was refused admittance to Malawi to carry out research and discuss its concerns with the government. In January 1990, an Africa Watch researcher traveled to Zambia and Zimbabwe to interview Malawian refugees. Research into abuses in Malawi continued throughout the year.

In October, Africa Watch published Where Silence Rules: The Suppression of Dissent in Malawi, which reviewed Malawi's human rights record since independence in 1964, as well as including up-to-date information on detentions, torture and political killings. The report received considerable international publicity, especially in light of the generally scant media coverage of Malawi. In an unusual development, a senior figure in the Malawian government replied publicly to the report's findings, stating that it was malicious and based solely on unfounded allegations made by refugees. He did not explain, first, why Malawian refugees had fled the country or, second, why Africa Watch had been forced to conduct its research outside Malawi. Africa Watch continued to press the government to allow a human rights mission to visit the country.


11 Philip Short, Banda, London 1974, p. 239.

12 US Department of State and Defense Security Agency, Congressional Presentation for Security Assistance Programs, Fiscal Year 1991, p. 194.

13 OECD Development Assistance Committee, Geographical Distribution of Financial Flows to Developing Countries.

14 Congressional Presentation for Security Assistance Programs, FY 1991, p. 195; EIU Country Report, No. 3, 1989; USAID.

15 EIU, Country Report, No. 2, 1990.

16 Congressional Presentation for Security Assistance Programs, FY 1991, p. 194.

17 IMF loans are denominated in Special Drawing Rights, calculated in terms of a basket of currencies. The SDR is currently equivalent to approximately $1.44.

18 Financial Times, April 10, 1990.

19 101st Congress, 2d Session, H. Con. Res. 327.

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