Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2016, 11:51 GMT

Malawi: Between the Referendum and the Elections

Publisher WRITENET
Author Richard Carver
Publication Date 1 May 1994
Cite as WRITENET, Malawi: Between the Referendum and the Elections, 1 May 1994, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
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.


Malawi is engaged in a transition from a single-party to a multi-party political system. This process has won wide approval from international observers and surprised many, both within and outside the country, by its smoothness and relative peacefulness. Democratic elections are scheduled for 17 May 1994.

However, there have also been setbacks. The potential dangers were shown most clearly in December 1993 when there were violent confrontations in Lilongwe between the army and the paramilitary Malawi Young Pioneers which left at least 30 people dead.[1] Several hundred Young Pioneers, at least, fled to the bush with their arms and are now believed to be encamped in neighbouring Mozambique. They threaten to ambush the democratic process, both literally and metaphorically.[2]

The active involvement of the army in Malawian politics also poses the threat of future intervention if the army is not satisfied with the conduct of the forthcoming campaign, the outcome of the elections or the performance of any future government.[3]

Human rights activists say that there is still the danger of violent intimidation of opposition supporters by members o the ruling Malawi Congress Party or initiates of the secretive Nyau cult, especially in the Central Region. They also indicate that the process of legislative reform which is currently under way, though significant is dangerously incomplete. For example, the government retains extensive powers of censorship including banning of publications and imprisonment of journalists and other critics.[4]

At a meeting of the Consultative Group of aid donors to Malawi in December 1993, it was agreed to restore non-humanitarian aid which had been suspended in May 1992 because of the government's poor human rights record. Already the European Union had given new aid to Malawi and the United Kingdom had restored balance of payments support. The restoration of aid was justified on the basis that Malawi had met the various conditions laid down by the donors in May 1992. Privately, donors also argued that the government had to be given an incentive to remain within the democratic process. Opposition parties welcomed the restoration of aid because, confident of winning the May elections, they did not wish to prolong the economic damage which sanctions were causing.[5]

However, many Malawian human rights activists argued, on the contrary, that the restoration of aid removed international pressure from the MCP government. It does now appear, for example, that no further significant legislative reform will take place since the international community seems to believe that the present legal dispensation is now adequate.[6]

Human rights groups warn of the danger of widespread violent intimidation as the election approaches. Similar incidents of harassment dogged the campaign leading up to the referendum in June 1993 in which Malawians voted on the future of the political system. There is a fear among some observers - a small concern, but one which is growing - that the process of democratic transition may yet unravel, causing chaos.[7]


Malawi is one of the handful of poorest countries in the world. With a population of some 9.5 million, its per capita Gross National Product is $160, infant mortality rate 153 per 100 live births, life expectancy 46 years and adult literacy about 25 per cent.[8] Until the early 1980s Malawi was a net food exporter, unlike many of its neighbours, and was generally regarded as a rare economic success story in the region. In reality progress in human development has been slow, despite nearly 30 years of political stability. A report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) noted: "Only Ethiopia, a land of ecological depletion and frequent drought, has levels of child malnutrition comparable to those of Malawi".[9]

The food situation was exacerbated in the early 1990s by the severe drought which affected the southern part of the country, leaving many people dependent on food aid, even by 1994. The presence in the country of more than a million Mozambican refugees has also strained the already meagre resources and administrative structures. The major exports are tobacco, sugar and tea. Earnings have been badly hit by a recent fall in tobacco prices on the world market. Remittances from migrant workers in South Africa, once the mainstay of Malawi's foreign exchange earnings, have been reduced to an illegal trickle.[10]

High-level corruption is a major problem. The most important company, with interests in all major sectors of the economy, is the Press Group in which President Hastings Kamuzu Banda is the principal trustee and shareholder. Forty per cent of the country's tobacco is grown on estates which he owns.[11] In the past, officials have often been detained without charge for questioning the accumulation of wealth by senior politicians. For example, in 1980 the managing director of Press Holdings (as it was then known) was arrested and detained for 12 years after he had questioned the payment of a multi-million kwacha "unsecured loan" from the company into the President's personal bank account.[12]


Between independence in 1964 and the emergence of a democratic opposition movement in 1992, Malawi was ruled by a single-party government which was unusually restrictive of any form of dissent (the country formally became a one-party state in 1966). Africa Watch commented on this period:

In common with the now-defunct regimes of Eastern Europe, Malawi is a totalitarian state where independent associations and free expression - indeed all the manifestations of independent civil society - are effectively forbidden. It is at the same time a personal despotism in which the state apparatus is directly answerable to one man. Although many states in sub-Saharan Africa suffer from greater political violence than Malawi, there are few African countries with such a combination of totalitarianism and personal despotism.[13]

President Banda achieved this degree of personal control by expelling a younger, more radical group of Ministers from his government shortly after independence and developing new means of political control - such as the paramilitary Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP), who were given powers of arrest. By the early 1970s the ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP), which had contained many who were loyal to the sacked radical Ministers, had been purged and remodelled as a loyal body.[14] The combination of the party and Young Pioneers served as an effective intelligence network at every level of society.[15] There are many accounts of individuals being arrested and detained for long periods because of unguarded remarks made in private conversations. For example, Thoza Khonje, a manager at the Sugar Corporation of Malawi, was arrested in 1989 because of remarks made over a drink with a friend, criticizing a government decision to redeploy school teachers to their districts of origin.[16]

For nearly three decades every Malawian was required to carry a party card on every occasion. One had to be produced in order to enter a market, board a bus or obtain health care. As well as being an effective method of political control it also played a useful role in revenue raising. (Similarly, salaried workers had a "voluntary" deduction made at source for a personal contribution to President Banda.[17] Those, like the Jehovah's Witnesses sect, who refused on principle to buy party cards were subject to severe persecution. The Jehovah's Witnesses were banned. Their members were detained, harassed, driven into exile and, in hundreds of cases, killed by Young Pioneers or MCP gangs.[18]

In some cases official death squads were apparently responsible for the assassination of opposition figures. In 1983 the leader of an exiled opposition group was murdered in Harare, Zimbabwe - earlier he had been maimed in a parcel bomb attack. After the first attack President Banda boasted publicly that his "boys" were responsible. In 1989 an exiled journalist died in a firebomb attack on his home in Lusaka, Zambia, only weeks after President Banda had singled him out for abuse in a speech. In the most celebrated case, three government ministers and a member of parliament died in a supposed road accident in Mwanza in 1983. They were last seen alive in Mikuyu Prison. Their offence appears to have been their opposition to a proposal that John Tembo be appointed Prime Minister.[19] Since the June 1993 referendum, public demands for a commission of inquiry into these killings have increased - especially into the Mwanza case.[20]

Hundreds of political opponents - real or supposed - were detained without charge under the Preservation of Public Security Act. For example, at one point in the recent past the inmates of Mikuyu Prison, the main detention centre, included the country's leading poet, its only neurosurgeon, several officials of state corporations, leading civil servants, at least four men who had been held for a quarter of a century or more, a teacher who was arrested because he was thought to have been disrespectful to President Banda in the course of an anatomy lesson, and many others whose cases were less well known.[21]

The machinery of justice was also thoroughly manipulated. From the late 1960s, the so-called "traditional courts" - established by the British colonialists to hear customary cases - had their jurisdiction extended to cover murder and, later, treason. The judges in these courts were chiefs - that is, government functionaries - who were directly appointed by the President. They followed no established rules of evidence and no legal representation was allowed. There was no right of appeal outside the traditional system. Hundreds of people were convicted and executed after unfair trials in these courts.[22] On occasion they were also used against political opponents: in 1983 one of the Ministers ousted in 1964, Orton Chirwa, was put on trial for treason along with his wife Vera. They were convicted and sentenced to death - a sentence which was only commuted to life imprisonment after an international outcry. Orton Chirwa died in prison in 1992 and Vera Chirwa was released shortly afterwards.[23]

An extensive system of censorship operated. Thousands of books were banned under the Censorship and Control of Entertainments Act or Section 46 of the Penal Code. This included left-wing political works but also the writings of many well-known literary figures, including Zola, Orwell, de Beauvoir, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Soyinka and Baldwin. All set texts studied in schools or the University of Malawi are subject to approval by the Censorship Board. This is one of a number of factors contributing to the tight limits on academic freedom.[24]

No independent press was allowed to function. Even journalists from the government newspaper, news agency or broadcasting corporation sometimes found themselves detained for inadvertently offending senior government figures. Foreign journalists were often excluded - it proved impossible for many years for any correspondents to base themselves in Malawi and report events on a regular basis. The last to try to do so were expelled as recently as 1990. This approach succeeded in keeping Malawi far from the attention of the international community.[25]

Malawi is sometimes presented as a model of ethnic harmony.[26] In fact, the government has manipulated tension between the different linguistic groups within the country. The country is divided into three administrative regions: Northern, Central and Southern. The largest ethno-linguistic group is the Chewa, living mainly in the Central Region, who constitute rather less than half the population. Other important groups are Tumbuka-speakers in the north and Yao, Lomwe and Nyanja-speakers in the south.[27] President Banda and John Tembo, the Minister of State in the Office of the President, who has wielded effective day-to-day power for at least the last decade, are both Chewas from the Central Region.[28]

One of the government's first moves after independence was to make Chewa the sole national language (English remains as official language). Chewa is the sole medium of instruction in the early years of schooling and the only indigenous language used on the radio, although it is the mother tongue of less than half of Malawians. Economic development has tended to be channelled to the Central Region. Smallholder tobacco farming is not permitted in any other region, for example. The capital city was moved from Zomba in the south to the small town of Lilongwe in the Centre. A modern city was built with South African aid.[29]

Because of the pattern of colonial education, northerners, who only constitute some 12 per cent of the population, have accounted for many of the most senior positions in education and the civil service. The government has repeatedly taken administrative measures to try to reverse this imbalance. A regional quota system to limit the access of northerners to the University was in force from 1969. In 1987 a more stringent district quota system was introduced, causing widespread discontent. In the 1970s and again in 1989, there were extensive purges of the civil service, with northerners dismissed and often detained or driven into exile.[30]

In 1989, the government ordered that all teachers were to be reassigned to their districts of origin. It was alleged that northern teachers in other regions taught particularly badly in order that their students should fail. In practice the effect of the redeployment was chaos in the educational system which had the worst impact on schools in the Central and Southern Regions. For example, pupil-teacher ratios in the Southern Region rose from 61:1 to 76:1 after the redeployment. Three quarters of science teachers in the south had been northerners. The North now had a glut of highly qualified and experienced teachers - simultaneously improving the standard of the schools, which was not what the government had intended, and forcing many teachers into unemployment or lower grade jobs.[31]

The government-induced crisis in the educational system had two important effects. First, it placed ethnic and regional issues at the top of the political agenda. The effects of this on Malawian politics may be felt for years to come. Secondly, it created resentment against the government among many Malawians across regional and linguistic divisions. This undoubtedly helped to generate the popular anti-government movement which emerged openly in 1992.

Another important dimension of government policy in the 1980s which could have repercussions for Malawi's future was its entanglement in the war in neighbouring Mozambique. Some senior members of the government were closely associated with the rebel Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO - Mozambique National Resistance). Malawi became a staging post for South African logistic support for RENAMO and provided the movement with rear bases. In 1986 this provoked a major crisis between Mozambique and Malawi, with the former threatening military action. The crisis was only defused by the death in a plane crash of the Mozambican president, Samora Machel.[32]

However, a number of aspects of Malawi's Mozambique policy have continuing implications. First, Malawi's support for RENAMO helped to create the one million-plus refugees to which it now plays host. Secondly, the entanglement in Mozambique was an important factor in alienating the army from the government and MCP. Malawian troops were deployed within Mozambique to guard the transport corridor to the port of Nacala - Malawi's main route to the sea - against attack from RENAMO. When the Malawian soldiers suffered casualties at the hands of enemies backed by their own government this created a disaffection which was fully revealed in the violent attacks on MYP and MCP headquarters in December 1993.[33]

Thirdly, there was a particularly close association between RENAMO and the Young Pioneers. After the violent disarming of the MYP in December 1993 many Young Pioneers fled across the border to Mozambique where they are believed to be sheltering in RENAMO camps. There is a continuing danger of MYP attacks into Malawi from their bases in Mozambique.[34]

The Malawian Government has always claimed that, in contrast, to many of its neighbours, Malawi has enjoyed nearly three decades of stability. This is largely true with the consequence that there have been few large flows of refugees out of the country. The largest exodus was of several thousand Jehovah's Witnesses to Zambia and Mozambique in the early 1970s.[35] However, there has been a steady trickle of political oppositionists and educated Malawians. For example, many Malawians are to be found in international organizations and in universities in North America, as well as elsewhere in the region. The University of Botswana, for example, has a large contingent of Malawians. Despite the recent amnesty for exiles, there is no immediate prospect that many of these will return.[36]


The eighth of March 1992 has already come to be regarded as a turning point in Malawian history. That was the day when a pastoral letter from the Roman Catholic bishops of Malawi was read in churches throughout the country. It criticized government human rights abuses, management of the education and health services, official corruption and, above all, the culture of silence and fear which prevailed.[37]

Contrary to some of the shorthand journalistic accounts of these events, the pastoral letter did not come out of the blue. It articulated sentiments which had been expressed increasingly since the 1989 purge of the civil service and redeployment of civil servants. The months leading up to March 1992 had seen the emergence of a coherent and well-argued series of anonymous samizdat publications circulating in Malawi's main towns.[38]

Nevertheless, the pastoral letter was a decisive event because it was the first time that anyone within Malawi had publicly lent their name to such critical views. Its impact was dramatic. The government expelled an Irish bishop, Monsignor John Roche, whom it presumed to be the author of the letter (in fact, the bishops insisted that it was drafted collectively).[39] A meeting of senior MCP officials in the days after the letter actually discussed murdering the bishops. This was widely alleged to be the case at the time and later turned out to be true when Malawi Broadcasting Corporation tapes of the meeting were smuggled out of the country.[40]

There were public demonstrations in support of the bishops - notably at the University in Blantyre and Zomba, where soldiers indicated their support for the students and deterred violent police action against the protesters. This was the first sign of the army's future political role. In May 1992 student protesters were joined by striking workers in Blantyre. In two days of riots dozens of protesters were killed by armed police and Young Pioneers.[41]

It was shortly after this that the Consultative Group of aid donors decided to suspend non-humanitarian assistance to the Malawian Government, having failed to receive a satisfactory response to a demarche which it had made on its human rights concerns in December 1991. There is no doubt that the domestic opposition was stimulated in part by international criticism of the Malawian Government. The West had been largely silent about human rights abuses for a quarter of a century, because President Banda was seen as an important ally against left-wing movements in southern Africa. Changes in South Africa, combined with the end of the Cold War, allowed a significant degree of criticism for the first time. It is also clear that the suspension of aid played a key role in forcing the Malawian Government to change its human rights practices and, ultimately, to concede a transition to democracy. However, the democratic and human rights movement in Malawi was essentially home-grown. The pastoral letter and the street protests resulted not from international concern but from mounting popular frustration.[42]

The following months saw severe repression of the democratic movement. Hundreds of people were detained for having copies of the pastoral letter or other pro-democracy literature. There was severe overcrowding in police lock-ups and prisons causing many prisoners to die. Political detainees, especially women, were subjected to torture and gross humiliation.[43] Earlier, in April 1992, a prominent trade union official, Chakufwa Chihana, returning from a meeting in Zambia had announced his intention of forming a "democratic alliance" to challenge the government. He was promptly arrested, detained incommunicado and eventually charged with sedition. In a long-running courtroom saga, the government repeatedly defied judicial orders in Chihana's favour until in December the High Court finally found him guilty of sedition. It was ruled that the offence of sedition encompassed non-violent criticism of the government and did not require any intention to incite violence. By then, however, Chihana's Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) had been formed, as well as the United Democratic Front (UDF). Both embryonic opposition parties began to function openly.[44]

In October 1992, President Banda made a decisive concession when he announced that there would be a referendum on the country's political future: whether to retain the one-party system or adopt a multi-party one.[45]

The referendum was finally held in June 1993, with the multi-party vote obtaining a two-thirds. In the Northern and Southern Regions more than 80 per cent voted multi-party. In the Centre, however, a majority voted to retain the existing system.[46]

The history of the referendum campaign is important because some human rights groups fear that the same pattern of intimidation and harassment will be repeated as the May 1994 general election approaches. The Central Region is the MCP traditional base of support so there is little surprise that the vote for the single party was higher there than elsewhere. However, there is also little doubt that intimidation of voters was concentrated in the Central Region, at least in the latter part of the campaign.[47]

Human rights groups reported frequent arrests of pro-democracy campaigners, repeated threats and attacks from local members of the MCP, democracy activists being dismissed from their jobs, opposition meetings banned, seizure of independent newspapers and bias in the coverage of the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation.[48]


The decisive referendum vote in favour of a change to a multi-party system set in motion a transitional process which will culminate in the elections scheduled for May 1994. Shortly after the referendum, parliament repealed the section of the Constitution which made Malawi a one-party state and enacted an amnesty law enabling exiles to return home.[49]

A National Consultative Council comprising representatives of all the political parties was established to oversee the transition - in particular the drafting a new Constitution which is supposed to be agreed before the elections.[50]

In November, parliament met again in Zomba and passed a further series of reforms. The Constitution was amended to abolish the Life-Presidency and introduce a Bill of Rights. An electoral law was enacted (although the new political and electoral system had not yet been agreed). The Forfeiture Act, which allowed the government to confiscate the property of political opponents, was repealed, along with the Decency in Dress Act, which prohibited women from wearing short skirts or trousers. The Preservation of Public Security Act was amended to abolish powers of detention without trial. The Penal Code was amended so that the offence of sedition, for which Chakufwa Chihana had been imprisoned, would henceforth require that someone had incited the public to violence.[51]

This reform programme was generally welcomed as a giant step forward. However, it contained various omissions and inadequacies. The one which was to have the most immediate significance was the failure to repeal or amend the Malawi Young Pioneers Act. Less than a month later the MYP were in violent confrontation with the army.[52]

The UN Centre for Human Rights criticized the new Bill of Rights for its "extensive restrictions and limitations" to the rights it contains and "provisions for derogations under states of emergency which far exceed those allowable under international human rights standards". For example, Article 6E, prohibiting torture and inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment, expressly excludes any punishment prescribed by law. Thus the courts would have no authority to rule that a law which laid down cruel or inhuman punishment was unconstitutional. The Bill of Rights is, admittedly, only a transitional document, intended to last only until a new Constitution is agreed.[53]

Article 19 has made an extensive critique of the reform programme and its impact - or lack of it - on freedom of expression. It points out that the government retains powers under at least three separate laws to ban publications and imprison anyone who writes, publishes, imports or has a copy of a banned publication: namely, the Censorship and Control of Entertainments Act, the Preservation of Public Security Act and Section 46 of the Penal Code. Section 60 of the Penal Code, which creates the offence of publishing or broadcasting false news "harmful to the interests or to the good name of Malawi", remains. So does the Protected Flag, Emblems and Names Act, which creates the offence of writing or saying anything "calculated to or liable to insult, ridicule or show disrespect" to the President. Opposition politicians were charged under both these provisions during the referendum campaign.[54]

Section 64 of the Penal Code relating to unlawful societies has been amended, but the government can still outlaw a society without it engaging in violent activity (S64d). Section 71 of the Penal Code contains a highly restrictive definition of an unlawful assembly and riot which, according to the UN Centre for Human Rights, could easily be used to hinder legitimate political assemblies (September 1993). There are apparently no plans to amend the Penal Code further. [55]

Human rights groups and lawyers have expressed concern at the failure so far to repeal or amend the Traditional Courts Act. The traditional courts were suspended after the referendum pending reform of the law.[56] The last political prisoner held after being convicted in a traditional court was released in mid-1993. However, dozens of prisoners are believed to on death row at Mikuyu Prison after unsafe convictions in traditional courts and, despite appeals from human rights groups, executions apparently continue.[57]

Article 19 has also called on the government to introduce radical amendments to the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation Act. It wants to reestablish the MBC under an independent board of management and calls for the repeal of provisions in the Act which allow the Minister of Information to intervene directly in the corporation's editorial content. It is the radio - not the flourishing independent press - which is the main source of information for rural Malawians, who constitute 90 per cent of the population.[58]


In September 1993 the government agreed with the NCC that it would disarm the Malawi Young Pioneers.[59] Three months later, when it had failed to carry out this undertaking, the army intervened to disarm the MYP forcibly. A bar-room argument in the northern town of Mzuzu ended with Young Pioneers shooting two soldiers dead. The middle-ranking and junior officers effectively mutinied against the army commander, General Isaac Yohane, attacking the Ministry of Youth and other MYP installations in Lilongwe, as well as looting the MCP headquarters. The army then moved into MYP bases throughout the country. At least 30 people appear to have died in the operation.[60]

The MYP is a national youth organization ostensibly intended for agricultural development and modelled on a similar body in Ghana, where President Banda had practised as a doctor.[61] However, from the earliest days the Young Pioneers were an armed paramilitary body with powers of arrest. Documents looted from MYP bases during the recent fighting showed that the ratio of "guards" to agricultural extension workers was about 40:1 [62]

When, in 1965, the MYP was given powers of arrest and immunity from prosecution, Dr Banda told Parliament:

The Young Pioneers cannot be arrested by any policeman without my consent.... If a Young Pioneer arrests anybody ... and brings them to the police station, the police officer in charge of that station must not release them ... if he does release them, he is committing a crime.[63]

In the late 1960s and early 1970s the MYP were responsible for the violent persecution of the Jehovah's Witnesses.[64] By the 1980s they are believed to have undergone joint military training with RENAMO.[65] It was the MYP who played the most violent role in crushing popular protest in May 1992.[66] Hence it is unsurprising that neutralizing the MYP was a priority for the opposition members of the NCC. As explained above, the hostility between the army and the MYP derives in part from the Young Pioneers' relationship with RENAMO.

Unfortunately, the manner of the disarming of the MYP - caused by the government's failure to honour its agreement with the NCC - could have significant consequences for the election campaign as well as for the stability of any future government.[67]

First, because of the violent confrontations between army and Young Pioneers in Lilongwe, the army discovered all other MYP bases virtually deserted. Young Pioneers simply took to the bush and it later emerged that hundreds, if not thousands, of them had crossed the border into Mozambique with their arms. They were reported to be encamped with their RENAMO allies. Negotiations were under way between the Malawian and Mozambican authorities for the return of the missing Young Pioneers. Given the depth of hostility between the MYP and the army it is unlikely that Young Pioneers will easily surrender themselves to military custody. This raises the possibility that they will remain at large and threaten harassment of the rural population, at the least, or a full-scale attempt to subvert any future democratic government at the worst.[68]

Secondly, the involvement of the army in politics could have significant repercussions. Africa Report draws a parallel with Ghana in 1979, when young officers intervened in the process of transition to multi-party rule. Two years after elections which had installed a democratic government the same officers launched a second coup because they were dissatisfied with civilian rule. There is a sense in which the army is now engaged in the transitional process and has an interest in seeing that any future government lives up to its expectations.[69] The parallel is not exact, since Ghana, unlike Malawi, had a history of military intervention in politics. However, as Article 19 points out, the soldiers have crossed a significant psychological threshold.[70]

This can be seen in the immediate aftermath to the December fighting. Officers who were dissatisfied with what they saw as a lack of leadership from General Yohane and his deputies demanded their replacement. Only days after insisting that they would never concede to such demands, the government gave way and replaced the top three commanders of the army. This may be another dangerous precedent.[71]

A further worrying development was the killing of a university lecturer by soldiers in Zomba in February 1994. Students boycotted classes and marched in protest at what they saw as growing army arrogance towards the civilian population aince the December events. Eyewitness accounts repor ted in Nyasanet said that the army had begun to occupy the role previously played by Young Pioneers.[72]


According to human rights groups the greatest threat to the successful conduct of the elections is the growing intimidation of political opponents of the MCP - especially UDF supporters - in the rural areas of the Central Region. They are sceptical about claims that the disarming of the MYP will end intimida- tion, pointing out that both during the referendum campaign and since it has been the MCP youth wing and members of the secret Nyau cult who have been responsible for political violence, not the Young Pioneers.[73]

Article 19 documented several incidents of violent harassment of the opposition in the Central Region from mid-November 1993, only one of which involved the MYP. In Mchinji a 14-year-old girl was beaten with bricks as she walked home from an opposition meeting. In Dedza, a village chairman of the UDF was beaten up as he walked home from a wedding party. In both cases the attackers were identified as MCP members; in both cases the victims were hospitalized; and in both cases they reported the assault to the police, who took no further action.[74]

In Dowa on 16 November members of the MCP youth, apparently ululating in the manner of Nyau members, broke up a UDF public rally, injuring 15 opposition supporters, one seriously. Afterwards, the Foreign Minister, Dr Hetherwick Ntaba, is reported to have said that Nyau members were entitled to "rebuff" politicians who tried to "confuse" the people.[75]

Nyau is a male Chewa cult best known for its masked dances. Its members are initiated at adolescence and schooled in extreme discipline, obedience and secrecy.[76] It has been employed before to terrorize opponents of the MCP, after the Cabinet Crisis of the mid-1960.[77] Article 19 argues that the revival of Nyau as a repressive and political phenomenon represents an attempt by the MCP to evade international scrutiny of its human rights record. It draws the parallel with Kenya, where the government is implicated in the attacks of the "traditional" Kalenjin warriors on Kikuyu and Luo communities in the Rift Valley. These began in the run-up to the December 1992 elections, the first genuine multi-party elections in Kenya since the 1960s. According to the Commonwealth Observer Group, the ruling party won 16 Rift Valley parliamentary seats unopposed as a result of the violent intimidation.[78] Article 19 draws attention to the meetings which are known to have taken place between political leaders in Lilongwe and Nairobi and infers that the MCP is deriving its strategy in the Central Region directly from KANU, the Kenyan ruling party.[79]


For nearly 30 years the MCP government boasted of the social harmony and unity among Malawians. In fact, any attempt to draw attention to social and economic grievances was rapidly suppressed.[80] The Malawi Trades Union Congress functioned in effect as an arm of the ruling party. The changing political dispensation has encouraged previously passive groups of workers to articulate their complaints for the first time. A number of trade unions have recently formed themselves into a new, independent federation.[81]

Agriculture is dominated by the estate sector - tobacco, tea and sugar - which accounts for about one fifth of cultivable land. About half a million people (out of an estimated labour force of about three million) are in waged employment. The average wage is about US$35 a month - many workers earn much less. A full day's pay for an unskilled labourer on the tea estates is not enough to buy a loaf of bread. Real per capita recurrent expenditure on social services was set to drop by 30 per cent in 1993.[82] With effect from 7 February 1994 the government floated the Malawi currency, the kwacha, which is likely to double the price of imported goods.[83]

The first stirrings of political protest from March 1992 quickly prompted unrest among industrial workers in Blantyre. This in turn sparked the riots of May 1992 in which 38 people died.[84] This was followed by unprecedented strikes by workers on the tea estates.[85] The months since then have seen further unrest from previously docile sections of the workforce. Civil servants launched an effectively disruptive strike over a pay claim in September 1993.[86] Tobacco workers have tried to draw attention to their poor working conditions and the predominance of the MCP elite among the estate owners.[87]

In one of the most serious recent incidents, police opened fire on striking sugar workers at an estate in Chikwawa owned by the British company Lonrho. One worker was killed and six injured. The strikers responded by burning 1,800 hectares of cane. Forestry workers in Viphya are reported to have resorted to similar tactics, setting fire to pine plantations. [88]

The reluctance of any of the major political parties to articulate the grievances of the estate workers or the civil servants, combined with the inevitable decline in living standards following the floating of the kwacha, seems certain to lead to further industrial unrest and possible violence.


It is probably Malawi's good fortune that it is engaged in its transition to democracy at a moment when the prospects for peace in neighbouring Mozambique are better than at any time in the past 30 years. The signing of a General Peace Agreement between the Mozambican Government and RENAMO in September 1992 has ended the civil war, at least temporarily, and allowed an improvement of relations between the Malawian and Mozambican Government. This has meant, for example, that Malawi has been able to approach Mozambique about the return of the Young Pioneers who fled across the border.[89] Both governments are reported to have approached the United Nations supervisory body, UNOMOZ, for its help in returning the Young Pioneers.[90]

The peace agreement in Mozambique has also meant that the repatriation of well over a million Mozambican refugees in Malawi has begun. Although various repatriation programmes have been formulated and reformulated since 1989, since the General Peace Agreement the UNHCR's programme has been restructured to take account of the massive spontaneous return of refugees - 350,000 in the years since the peace agreement was signed, according to some official figures [91] Already by 1990 it was estimated that over 200,000 Mozambican refugees had returned home from around the region - only 4,500 of them in organized programmes.[92]

A study of refugees in Dedza and Ntcheu Districts by Violet Bonga of the University of Malawi found almost universal enthusiasm for return.[93] This is perhaps because many refugees in those districts came from neighbouring Angonia which is easily accessible and where there are virtually no land mines to prevent access and cultivation. Refugees in southern Malawi from Zambezia Province have shown a more cautious attitude. In general, returnees have kept their options open. By October 1993 the number of refugees drawing rations in Malawi had fallen by only 100,000 even though the number actually living across the border was more than three times that amount.[94]

How smoothly the repatriation continues will depend on a number of factors. The crucial one, clearly, is the outcome of the peace process, with general elections due in Mozambique in October 1994. The process has been beset with delays but there is general optimism that it will not fall apart as happened in Angola. Other considerations - which have not always been adequately addressed - are returnees' access to land, their freedom of movement within Mozambique and the dangers posed by land mines. A major practical constraint is the serious underfunding of the UNHCR programme in Mozambique [95]


Most observers are agreed that the future for Malawi is more promising than a past which offered political repression and economic suffering for the vast majority. However, human rights groups, trade unions, tenants organizations and others are pointing out the many problems which remain unresolved.

Most immediately there is the danger of violent intimidation of opponents of the Malawi Congress Party, especially in the Central Region, in the weeks before the general elections. In the longer term there are a number of potentially destabilising factors: the incompleteness of the legal reform; the disruptive potential of the Nyau cult and the exiled Young Pioneers; and overwhelming social and economic grievances which have been suppressed for too long and which will be aggravated by recent harsh economic measures.

As in Kenya, growing ethnic rivalry could yet become a source of conflict. Many observers are worried by the increasingly regional and ethnic character of Malawian politics. The major political parties appear to be acquiring strong regional followings: AFORD in the North, the UDF in the South and the MCP in the Centre.

Meanwhile, the army has become a factor in Malawian politics - waiting in the wings to see how a new democratic government copes with the country's intractable problems.


The views expressed in the papers are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of UNHCR.


[1] SouthScan, "Blow-up deferred as Banda returns after army action against Pioneers", 10 December 1993.

[2] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 18 and 20 December 1993

[3] Africa Report, "Malawi: The Army Factor", January-February 1994

[4] Article 19, "Freedom of Expression in Malawi: More Change Needed", February 1994.

[5] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 20 September 1993; Michiru Sun, [Blantyre], "EC Aid for common man", 30 November 1993; SouthScan, "Aid meeting crucial for economy in run-up to election", 17 December 1993.

[6] Article 19, Op.cit, February 1994.

[7] Ibid.

[8] World Bank, Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth, Washington DC, 1989; World University Service, Academic Freedom 2, Geneva/London, 1993, 56-7.

[9] New York Times, "Starving Children of Malawi Shatter Leader's Boast of Plenty", 3 April 1990.

[10] SouthScan, 17 December 1993.

[11] The Guardian, 18 February 1987

[12] Amnesty International, March 1992

[13] Africa Watch, "Where Silence Rules: The Suppression of Dissent in Malawi", October 1990, 1

[14] Williams, T. David, Malawi: The Politics of Despair, Ithaca and London, 1978, 260

[15] Africa Watch, Op.cit., October 1990, 15.

[16] Amnesty International, "Malawi: Human rights violations 25 years after independence", (AI Index: AFR 36/10/89), September 1989.

[17] World University Service, Op.cit., 1993, 58.

[18] Minority Rights Group, "Jehovah's Witnesses in Africa", 1985; Wilson, K.B., "The Social Dynamics of Displacement: The Case of Jehovah's Witnesses in Mozambique", Refugee Studies Programme, Oxford, no date.

[19] Africa Watch, Op.cit., October 1990, 47-53.

[20] Article 19, "Malawi's Past: The Right to Truth", November 1993.

[21] Africa Watch, Op.cit., October 1990, 23-8; Amnesty International, Op.cit., March 1992.

[22] Scottish Faculty of Advocates, Law Society of England and Wales and the General Council of the Bar, "Human Rights in Malawi", December 1992; Africa Watch, Op.cit., October 1990, 29-40; Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, Malawi: The Referendum and Building Civil Society, April 1993.

[23] Amnesty International, "The case of Orton and Vera Chirwa", (AI Index: AFR 36/08/84), December 1984; The Independent, "Orton Chirwa", 22 October 1992.

[24] World University Service, Op.cit., 70-4; Africa Watch, Op.cit., 70-75; Index on Censorship, "Singing in the dark rain", February 1988; Mapanje Jack, "Censoring the African poem", 1986, repr. in Index on Censorship, September 1989, 1986; Kanyongolo Fidelis, "The Law and Practice of Censorship in Malawi...", Law and Theology Conference, Chancellor College, Zomba, 1993.

[25] Africa Watch, Op.cit., 1990, 79-82; Article 19, World Report 1991, 1991.

[26] US Department of State, 1988, 203.

[27] Library of Congress, Federal Research Division, Malawi: A Country Study, Washington DC, 1975, 75-88.

[28] Africa Watch, Op.cit., 55.

[29] Vail Leroy and White, Landeg, "Tribalism in the political history of Malawi", in Leroy Vail (ed), The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa, London, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1989; World University Service, Op.cit., 1993, 61-3.

[30] Africa Watch, Op.cit., 1990, 59.

[31] World University Service, Op.cit., 1993, 64; Moyo Christon, "Education Policy and Development Strategy in Malawi", in Guy C.Z Mhone (ed), Malawi at the Crossroads: The Post-Colonial Political Economy, Harare, 1992, 289.

[32] Vines, Alex, RENAMO: Terrorism in Mozambique, York, 1991, 53-8; Africa Report, "The Malawi Connection", November-December 1988; Hedges, David, "Notes on Malawi-Mozambique Relations", Journal of Southern African Studies, Cambridge, 1989.

[33] Africa Report, Op.cit., January-February 1994.

[34] Ibid.; BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 18 and 20 December 1993.

[35] Minority Rights Group, Op.cit., 1985,; Wilson, Op.cit., no date.

[36] World University Service, Op.cit., 1993, 67.

[37] Roman Catholic Bishops, "Living our Faith" (pastoral letter), March 1992.

[38] Index on Censorship, "A License to Kill", May 1992.

[39] The Observer [London], "Malawi expels bishop during Easter service", 19 April 1992.

[40] The Independent, "Ministers Threaten Malawi Bishops", 3 October 1992.

[41] Amnesty International, "Malawi March-July 1992: mass arrests of suspected government opponents", (AI Index: AFR 36/37/92), September 1992.

[42] The Independent, "38 die as Malawi riots", 8 May 1992; "West blocks aid to Malawi", 14 May 1992.

[43] Amnesty International, Op.cit., September 1992; Scottish Faculty of Advocates et al, Op.cit., December 1992.

[44] Amnesty International, Urgent Actions appeals, 6 April, 14 April, 30 April, 8 May, 12 May, 5 June, 13 July, 15 July, 15 September, 14 December 1992, 14 January, 25 March, 30 March, 16 June 1993 - Chakufwa Chihana, international trade union official.

[45] The Guardian, "Malawi's 'president for life' pledges poll on pluralism", 19 October 1992.

[46] Referendum Commission, 1993 referendum results, June 1993.

[47] AWEPA (European Parliamentarians for Southern Africa), "Final report of an observer mission at the Malawi referendum 14 June 1993", June 1993.

[48] Amnesty International, "Malawi: Fears for the safety of pro-democracy activists", (AI Index: AFR 36/17/93), March 1993; Article 19, "The Referendum in Malawi, Free Expression Denied", April 1993.

[49] Church of Scotland, "Chronology of Events in Malawi", August 1993.

[50] Ibid..

[51] Public Affairs Committee, [Lilongwe], "Briefing on Parliament meeting in Zomba", 19 November 1993.

[52] Africa Report, Op.cit., January-February 1994.

[53] Article 19, Op.cit., February 1994.

[54] Ibid.; Article 19, Op.cit., April 1993.

[55] Article 19, Op.cit., February 1994.

[56] Amnesty International, "Malawi: a new future for human rights", (AI Index AFR 36/02/94), February 1994; Council of the Bar of England and Wales and the Scottish Faculty of Advocates, "Constitutional Change in Malawi", October 1993.

[57] Malawi Human Rights Information Network, [London], meeting on 24 January 1994).

[58] Op.cit., February 1994.

[59] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 24 September 1993.

[60] SouthScan, Op.cit., 10 December 1993; Africa Report, Op.cit., January-February, 1994.

[61] Africa Watch, Op.cit., October 1990, 15.

[62] Documents seen by the author, Zomba, December 1993.

[63] Williams, Op.cit., 1978.

[64] Minority Rights Group, "Jehovah's Witnesses in Africa", 1985.

[65] Africa Report, Op.cit., January-February 1994.

[66] Amnesty International, Op.cit., September 1992.

[67] BBC World Service, "Newshour", 3 February 1994.

[68] Africa Report, Op.cit., January-February 1994; Nyasanet [electronic mail conference], 18-20 January 1994; BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 18 and 20 December 1993.

[69] Op.cit., January-February 1994.

[70] Op.cit., February 1994.

[71] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 13 December 1993.

[72] February 1994.

[73] Article 19, Op.cit., February 1994.

[74] Ibid..

[75] Ibid..

[76] Kerr, David, "Ideology, Resistance and the Transformation of Performance Traditions in Post-Colonial Malawi", University of Botswana, 1993.

[77] Schoffeleers, Matthew, "The Nyau Societies, Our Present Understanding", Society of Malawi Journal, 1976.

[78] "The Presidential, Parliamentary and Civic Elections in Kenya", London, 1993.

[79] Op.cit., February 1994.

[80] Africa Watch, October 1990.

[81] Malawi Human Rights Network, [London], 24 January 1994.

[82] Catholic Institute for International Relations, [London], "Malawi: A moment of truth", 1993, 18.

[83] Financial Times, "Malawi to float currency", 7 February 1994.

[84] The Independent, 8 May 1992.

[85] The Independent,"Labour leaders challenge Lilongwe", 12 May 1992; The Daily Telegraph, [London], "Malawi tea workers in pay strike", 13 May 1992.

[86] BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 8 September 1993.

[87] Tobacco Tenants of Nkhotakhota, "Who makes the money in the tobacco industry?", no date.

[88] SouthScan, [London], "Debt crisis looms among small farmers", 3 December 1993.

[89] Nyasanet, 18 January 1994.

[90] SouthScan, "UK agrees further partial and conditional funding", 4 February 1994.

[91] Wilson, "Assisting repatriation: recent lessons from self-repatriation in Mozambique", Finnish Refugee Council, 1993(2); Carver, Richard, "Going home: the repatriation of Mozambican refugees", University of York, 1993.

[92] Makanya, Stella, "Mozambican Refugees: Preparing for Repatriation", CIES, Harare, 1992.

[93] Bonga, Violet, "The Current Situation and Attitudes Towards Repatriation Among Mozambican Refugees in Ntcheu and Dedza Districts in Malawi", Refugee Council (London), 1993.

[94] Carver, Op.cit., 1993.

[95] Ibid.

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