Banda faces new trial of strength

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT of President Hastings Banda of Malawi will undergo another test of strength this weekend as the country celebrates independence day on Monday with a rally at the national stadium. At the last such rally on the President's birthday in May embarrassingly few people turned up, writes Richard Dowden.

Dr Banda is the last African head of state to resist absolutely calls for multi-party democracy but his 90-odd years and internal and external pressure are bringing an end to his 28-year-rule. But the 'President for Life' is not going gracefully. The man most likely to succeed him in the short term, John Tembo, Minister of State in the President's Office, made a speech for local consumption recently ruling out multi-party democracy. The prisons are heavily overcrowded with political detainees. Amnesty International cannot discover how many are detained at any one moment but hundreds are believed to have been picked up since April when political opposition became overt.

Many of those detained are working for foreign companies, significantly at least three from companies dealing with fax and photocopying machines. As in revolutions elsewhere in the past few years these machines have played an important role in spreading information and tracts among opposition groups.

Although President Banda released some long-term political prisoners, including one who had served 27 years for an alleged conspiracy, there are still about a dozen who have served more than 15 years and perhaps more than a hundred who have been in detention for more than two years. The prisoner causing most embarrassment is Chafukwa Chihana, the trade union leader who returned to Malawi in April in a blaze of publicity demanding multi-party democracy. He was promptly detained and has yet to be charged.

In May Western donors suspended the dollars 74m ( pounds 39m) aid programme and demanded political reform but there is little sign that the government is bending. Power resides firmly in the hands of Mr Tembo and his niece, Cecilia Kadzamira, the 'official hostess' of President Banda. Mr Tembo is even more vigorously hated by the opposition than President Banda.

Last month Melvin Khanga, Malawi's long-serving army commander, retired 'for health reasons'. General Khanga is an opponent of Mr Tembo and is known to have opposed his attempt to become vice-president. According to some reports, he was detained before he was forced to retire.