Banda's return upsets Malawi

AFTER a remarkable recovery from brain surgery carried out two months ago, the President of Malawi, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who is in his mid-90s, resumed full presidential powers yesterday, throwing the country's politics into disarray.

The five opposition parties walked out of the all-party National Consultative Council (NCC) and demanded the recall of parliament to appoint an acting president to oversee the run-up to elections next May. The NCC chairman, Fred Nseula, said Dr Banda's reinstatement was a burden on the old man and that the NCC could not independently establish whether he was fit to resume duties.

The return of Dr Banda follows the deaths of 22 people in clashes between the army and the Young Pioneers, the paramilitary force of the ruling Malawi Congress Party. In a 20-minute radio broadcast yesterday, Dr Banda said he would appoint a defence minister who would look into grievances and problems of the army.

Malawi has been in transition since Dr Banda accepted the result of a referendum in May this year that gave a two-to-one majority in favour of making Malawi's one-party state a multi-party democracy. Parliament was dissolved and the NCC has been overseeing the transition period.

The country has been ruled by a three-man presidential council since Dr Banda was rushed to a South African hospital in October, suffering from a stroke. But yesterday state radio announced that the council had dissolved itself and restored its powers to the president, who has ruled the country since independence.

Last Friday the army, which has stayed out of politics until now, tried to disarm the Young Pioneers after three soldiers were killed by members of the youth movement in a drunken brawl in Mzuzu last week. The Young Pioneers are ostensibly a party youth movement, but in reality they are gangs of thugs used to attack critics of Dr Banda's rule. They are known to be loyal to John Tembo, the unpopular minister, presidential adviser and member of the presidential council.

Although the council was quick to announce the army was disarming the Young Pioneers at the council's request, many people see the move as an attempt by junior officers to demobilise the movement and preempt a bid by Mr Tembo for the presidency. The army seems to have succeeded, but there are fears elements in the army may realise that there is a power vacuum in the country and try to fill it by force.