Born in Nyasaland (as Malawi was then known), he spent 40 years abroad. He was infuriated by the British government's decision in 1953 to include Nyasaland in a federation with the two Rhodesias notwithstanding the expressed opposition of African politicians. They did not want to be governed by white Rhodesians who reckoned that the "native" was incapable of participating in government. Their spokesmen were young and inexperienced. They looked for a charismatic leader. They persuaded Banda to return to his country to take up the cudgels.
This he did in 1958 and demanded immediate secession from the federation and independence from Britain. His brilliant oratory inspired his followers to blazon this message throughout the country, often resulting in disturbances necessitating police and later military intervention with some fatalities. Banda and his activists were imprisoned without trial for 13 months. Once he was released a series of meetings with British ministers provided stepping stones towards the achievement of Banda's objectives.
Membership of the federation however had provided Nyasaland with additional financial resources and secession would have left a formidable budgetary deficit. To achieve his ends it was necessary to extract from the British the promise of a subsidy. By quiet negotiation Banda got his way. Indeed, Britain decided to dissolve the federation on 31 December 1963. Independence followed for Malawi on 6 July 1964. It had taken him precisely six years.
He ruled for 39 years, fortunate to have inherited the outgoing colonial government's plans for the establishment of an infrastructure for industrial development and for the exploitation of the country's principal asset, its fertile soil. Banda united the tribes behind him and created a one- party state. He was thus able to make full use of the party hierarchy to persuade his people to extract the maximum benefit from the products of the soil. To the same end he visited different parts of the country every planting season, even in his old age. Roads and railways appeared where none had existed before, air transport facilities and telecommunications were vastly improved, many small industries took advantage of a welcoming regime, a new capital city was built and its predecessor turned into a university campus fed by a growing number of secondary schools. Above all there was peace.
Before long, however, Malawi's human rights record came under severe international criticism. The Young Pioneers Banda had allowed to be established assumed a quasi-military role and were responsible for beatings, even killings, and destruction of property. Criticism mounted and Banda bore the brunt. He eventually saw the light, disbanded the Pioneers, introduced multi-party democracy and consequently lost the ensuing election.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that Banda personally sanctioned these outrages he cannot, as head of state, avoid the ultimate responsibility. An autocrat he certainly was. People were imprisoned without trial and their assets sequestrated. Yet in contrast he was quick to provide sustenance and shelter for a million refugees from the civil war in Mozambique. And under his regime some eight million Malawians were able to live in relative tranquillity - in stark contrast to events elsewhere on the African continent. And tranquil that little country remains.
Sir Henry Phillips is the author of `From Obscurity to Bright Dawn' (Radcliffe Press, pounds 24.95)