In the first few days of September 1964, the Prime Minister of Malawi, Dr H. K. Banda, dismissed three of his most able ministers, O.E. Chirwa, qc, Minister, of Justice, W. M. K. Chiume, Foreign Minister, and Augustine Bwanausi Minister of Development; the response to this was that three other key men resigned in sympathy with their colleagues, Y. K. Chisiza, Home Affairs, W. Chokani, Labour, and H. B. M. Chipembere, the Minister of Education. The meeting of Parliament to debate a Motion of Confidence in the Prime Minister, called as a result of the dismissals, marks the beginning of a radical change in Malawi politics and society, which some observers saw as an upsurge of tribalism. This came as a shock to many who had held that Malawi was the new African state least troubled by tribalism and most imbued with a sense of nationhood.

What had happened? The ministers were dissatisfied with the rate of Africanization of senior civil service appointments and they felt that the general economic policy was too conservative. In foreign affairs they felt that the Prime Minister was too overtly anti-communist (he was able to brand them as agents of Peking over this) and concerned with having good relations with the Portuguese. These problems were all tied up with a bigger one. Banda was increasingly taking final authority from them in many matters and holding it himself, and was accepting the private advice of an older generation of politicians such as Richard Chidzanja, Chairman of the Party for the Central Region. When, after great hesitation, they put their grievances to him, the Prime Minister astonished them by dismissing three of them and making it quite clear that a struggle for power in Malawi was on. All this took place within six weeks of independence.

The aim of this article is to look at the power base from which Dr Banda was able to defeat the very men who had brought him back to Malawi in 1958.

In the preface of his book The Rise and Fall of Western Colonialism,footnote Stewart Easton observed,

‘Dr H. K. Banda is one of the most gifted of African Nationalists. He is busily trying to create a Malawi nationalism in Nyasaland, an area cut out of Central Africa by the British.’

We can agree that there is room for discussion as to how far the different African Freedom Movements are ‘nationalist’ in character, and also how far a ‘national’ feeling can grow or be made to grow in those modern African states which are primarily the arbitrary construction of European occupation. However, even after the events of the autumn of 1964, Easton’s example seems very unfortunate for two reasons: first, Nyasaland was not an arbitrary chunk of territory cut out by the British, and second, there already existed a strong feeling of nationhood in Nyasaland, before the return of Dr Banda in 1958 after a 40-year absence.

On the first point, it is clear from Portuguese records that in the 18th century there existed to the north of the Zambesi a country called by the Portuguese the land of the Maravi or Malawi. These people were the ancestors of the present ciNyanja-speaking people. If one takes the present eastern boundary of Malawi as being roughly correct and extends the western and southern boundaries towards the escarpments above the Zambesi and the Luangwa, the extent of the old land of Maravi can be seen. So the British Protectorate set up in 1891 was not simply a creation of British, Portuguese and German diplomatists, but was the old Maravi trimmed of some of its parts.