Banda to be charged on cabinet murders

Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the most eccentric and enigmatic of African rulers, will not be allowed to die quietly in his bed. The former "President for Life" of Malawi, now well over 90 years old, was put under house arrest yesterday, and is to be cha rged with the 1983 murder of three members of his cabinet and an MP. Dr Banda`s close associate, John Tembo, will also be charged with murder.

The announcement was made yesterday by the Minister of Information, Brown Mpinganjira, following a commission of inquiry which stated that the four men had been killed by a special police unit acting on orders. Dr Banda, who lost the presidency in Malawi's first election last May, always claimed that the four men had been killed in a car crash, but the inquiry said it had established that they were beaten to death with hammers and blunt instruments.

Dr Banda has been out of the public eye since his defeat in the elections. He underwent brain surgery in 1993 and those who have seen him since say he has few moments of lucid thought. Diplomats say it is unlikely he will be able to stand trial.

In a report to President Bakili Muluzi, the chairman of the commission of inquiry, Judge Michael Mtegha, said that the four ministers were killed by the Special Operations Squad. He said that Dick Matanje, secretary general of the ruling Malawi Congress Party; Aaron Gadama, leader of the parliament; John Sangala, Minister of Health; and David Chiwanga, an MP, were beaten to death, then their bodies placed in a car which was rolled into a ravine to make it look like a crash. "There's no doubt .


. that the four were murdered on instructions from police," he said.

Any trial is likely to rely on the evidence of Machipisa Munthali, who was released after 27 years in prison. He has testified that the ministers were detained in prison the night before their death. Other witnesses have corroborated this. Dr Banda was quoted in the report as saying he could not remember authorising the killings.

It will be hard to prove a direct link to Dr Banda. Those who know him well believe he did not personally order the murders of dissidents, but that he did little to stop them. Although as president for nearly 30 years he crushed all opposition to his tyrannical rule, he usually ordered them to be locked up. Once he screamed that they should "rot rot rot" in jail. Dr Orton Chirwa, Malawi's best-known dissident and a former friend of Dr Banda, died in chains in a dungeon aged 72 in 1993. He and his wife had been in prison for 12 years.

Other opponents were murdered, and most of Malawi's elite suffered an arbitrary see-saw existence under Dr Banda's rule: minister one moment, in prison the next. It was hard to read the president's whims, but he had a paranoid fear of rivals.

Famous for his dark three-piece suit, watch chain, Homburg hat and dark glasses, Dr Banda was an exile in his own country. He lived for more than 40 years outside Malawi, becoming a respected doctor in wartime Britain.

In exile he made many friends and became an elder of the Church of Scotland, but when he returned to Nyasaland, as Malawi was before independence, he was alone. He was handed the leadership, since he was Malawi's most academically successful son.

Once in power he turned on those who had elevated him. He also declared Malawi a one-party state with himself as President for Life, cut the country off from the rest of Africa and established close links with South Africa. His secretary, Cecilia Kadzamira, became "Official Hostess" and escorted him everywhere, controlling access to him. John Tembo, her uncle, became the hatchet man of the regime and built a paramilitary power base.

As South Africa changed and Malawi's donors forced Dr Banda to hold an election, the regime unravelled. In 1992 a referendum returned a huge majority in favour of multi-party democracy, and a year later the election was held. He lost to Mr Muluzi gracefully, but failed to secure what many African tyrants have sought as just reward - immunity from prosecution for past misdeeds.