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Africa's oldest despot faces end of his strange journey: Richard Dowden in Lilongwe on the two lives of Hastings Banda, doctor and dictator

THE FINAL ACT in an extraordinary African drama will be played out tomorrow in Malawi.

Malawians will vote in a referendum to decide between a one-party state and multi-party democracy. It is the last country in Africa to bend to the demand for a multi-party system, and its ruler, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, is the last president in anglophone Africa to have ruled since independence.

In some ways Dr Banda has been a caricature of an African tyrant. He took over the beautiful but backward protectorate called Nyasaland from the British, locked up his former colleagues, named himself president for life and ruled the country as his personal kingdom.

Dressed in a dark three-piece suit, wearing a black Homburg hat and waving a fly-whisk, he travels the country telling rallies that but for him they would still be living under colonialism. Back in State House, he appoints, sacks or imprisons like a slave owner. Some who protested were executed or murdered. Meanwhile the economy, dependent on primary agricultural products, has slid into debt and destitution.

Having achieved independence for Malawi, he turned his back on the black nationalist struggle in the rest of southern Africa and befriended Ian Smith's regime in Rhodesia and the South Africans, who rewarded him by paying for a new capital and a huge palace at Lilongwe. He spurned ideology and grandiose projects - apart from Lilongwe. He believed Malawi's future lay in agriculture and discipline.

Like the British rulers before him, he was ambivalent about education. He built Kamuzu College, a bizarre imitation of Eton, which had only expatriate teachers and taught Latin and Greek. But although he said believed in schools, he felt threatened by the new elite that emerged from them. He felt happier being the most educated Malawian, caring for the ignorant peasants in paternalistic fashion.

Four years ago Margaret Thatcher visited Malawi, heaped praise on Dr Banda and his government and tipped him some extra aid. The words human rights or democracy never crossed her lips. But, like all other Western powers, Britain has a new agenda in Africa, and in 1991 cut off aid to force the government to move towards democracy.

Dr Banda grudgingly gave in to the pressure, and last October announced a referendum - but only to prove that those who were calling for multi-party democracy were a tiny, dissident minority, and that most Malawians supported his one-party state. Since then he has campaigned on this theme, reminding his people of all he has done by rescuing them from colonialism and building schools and clinics. He has identified himself so closely with the one-party state that, if the vote goes against him tomorrow, he will lose everything.

According to those who have known him longest, Dr Banda is now 97. As he grew older, he fell more and more under the influence of the oddly named 'Official Hostess', Cecilia Kadzamira. Dr Banda never married, and he became dependent on this former nurse, who is always at his side and controls access to him.

Ms Kadzamira, or Mama as the President calls her, has an uncle, John Tembo, who is regarded in Malawi as a wicked uncle. With his niece's assistance, Mr Tembo has grown more powerful and is now the most senior minister in the government. He is much feared and many say they will be voting for multi-party democracy on Monday not because they want Dr Banda to go, but because they do not want Mr Tembo and Mama Kadzamira to take over when he dies.

OF ALL African leaders, Dr Banda is the most intriguing. He is a man who has lived in two worlds, Africa and Europe, yet is at home in neither; a man who was known to his friends as a sweet-natured, unassuming and intelligent doctor, but who disintegrated into a vain, paranoid tyrant given to outbursts of rage.

In Britain he was a doctor with a Mother Teresa reputation, yet he was later to be thrown out of Ghana for carrying out abortions. He has never married and appeared to have a fear of sex. Miniskirts, bell-bottoms and long male hair have been banned in Malawi since the permissive Sixties. His one known affair ended when he abandoned the woman who loved him, and their child.

His first wrench was leaving his village in central Malawi to work in the gold mines of South Africa. He was not to return for 43 years, and he lost all contact with the country. He even forgot his mother tongue. His means of escape was education, and even by the standards of his strict Scottish Presbyterian mission education, he pursued it with an astonishing single-mindedness.

He managed to reach America, where he qualified as a doctor, then left to try to make his home in Edinburgh, where he was reportedly shocked to find that dancing was permitted. After retraining as a doctor under the British system, he set up a practice in the poorest part of Liverpool, and soon gained a reputation for free care for the poor, even paying the rent of those facing eviction. When the Second World War broke out, he refused military service as a conscientious objector, but was drafted to the Tyne, where people flocked to his surgery because of his abilities and charm.

From North Shields he moved to Harlesden in north London, where he had an affair with his secretary, Margaret French, who became pregnant. Mrs French was divorced by her husband, and the publicity forced Dr Banda to leave for Ghana. Mrs French followed him with their child, but he rejected them.

In Ghana he seems to have broken down, and those who knew him then said he was depressed and angry. He was forced to leave Ghana after being accused of carrying out illegal abortions at his practice in Kumasi.

Throughout all of this, Dr Banda kept in touch with politics in Africa and in Malawi. Despite his success, he was constantly buffeted by racism. When he became a doctor, the colonial authorities offered to let him return to Nyasaland as long as he had no social contact with whites.

The battle in Nyasaland was over federation. The white rulers of Rhodesia wanted a federation of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasaland; but black Africans were against it. Dr Banda returned to Africa in 1958 to fight federation, and was sent to prison by the colonial authorities. But the tide of history was with him, and on his release, he was treated as a revered statesman and invited to tea at No 10 Downing Street.

As he came to power, Dr Banda realised he no longer knew Malawi; he begged a British friend to advise him about his fellow nationalists. He turned inwards and became suspicious and domineering.

Within weeks of Malawi's independence, he clashed with colleagues who had kept the presidential seat warm for him, sacking and jailing them. Since then he has ruled alone, and become increasingly remote.

But there have been moments of insight into his feelings. Dr Fergus Macpherson, a Presbyterian minister and an old friend, whose father helped Dr Banda to become an elder of the Church of Scotland, met him again in 1977. 'We had talked of the old days in Edinburgh and he was warm and friendly. Then I raised the case of a woman political prisoner. He went berserk. He screamed and ranted, there was saliva coming from his mouth, his feet were dancing up and down, and his eyeballs were rolling alarmingly.'

Within a few minutes, however, he had calmed down and agreed to release the woman. Dr Macpherson met his old friend again a few weeks ago. 'He was very frail, myopic and hard of hearing. I had to get close so he could read my lips. As he talked, he became very affectionate, as he was in the old days.' But when Dr Macpherson spoke about human rights in Malawi, the old man said: 'I know nothing of this.'

'He has become a palace prisoner,' Dr Macpherson said. 'Four times he told me he did not know what was going on in Malawi. Then he said to me, 'I'm so lonely, so lonely.' '

(Photograph omitted)