Chakufwa Chihana

Malawi's 'father of democracy'

Born: Kawiluwilu, Malawi, 23 April, 1939.

Died: Johannesburg, South Africa, 12 June, 2006, aged 67.

FORMER Malawi vice-president Chakufwa Chihana, who had strong links to the Church of Scotland and human rights campaigners in Scotland, was Malawi's leading democracy campaigner during the three-decade-long dictatorship of Kamuzu Banda. He was imprisoned for long periods by the "president for life" before he achieved his dream of his country's first multi-party elections in 1994.

While Banda was the father of the nation, when it gained independence from Britain in 1964, Chihana was the father of democracy, twice suffering imprisonment under Banda after campaigning for free elections.

Malawi was inevitably known sardonically as a "one-man Banda" during the 30 years the Church of Scotland elder and Edinburgh University medical graduate ruled the central African state. Opponents were dispatched to the next life with Calvinistic zeal.

Banda detained Chihana without charge or trial for more than six years from1971 onwards because of his leadership of the banned Commercial and General Workers Union and his demands for an end to the dictatorship.

As a Presbyterian, Chihana was distressed that the Kirk, which had taken Christianity to Malawi a century earlier, did not once petition for his release during his time in jail. But for the efforts of Amnesty International, especially the Scottish branch under its then leader, Dr Alistair King, he may have died, like many others, in the Banda gulag.

On being released on condition he went into exile, Chihana became a student at Nuffield College, Oxford, from where he travelled to Edinburgh to thank Dr King and his Amnesty groups and to challenge the leadership of the Church of Scotland over its failure to speak out on Banda's excesses.

In prison, Chihana shared a cell with 86 other people with two buckets as latrines between them. "I saw people beaten with batons until they were maimed," he told The Scotsman. "Some lost eyes or ears ... Some died. You saw people carried away in wheelbarrows and you never saw them again."

Chihana, who found support for his attack on the Kirk from Dr Andrew Ross, the principal of New College, Edinburgh, who had been a missionary in Malawi, said there had been a continuous crisis under Banda since independence. Dissenters went to prison in droves, and President Banda said publicly: "If, to maintain political stability and administration, I have to detain 10,000, 100,000, I will do it ... I will keep them there and they will rot."

Chihana said: "When people were being killed, mutilated and put into bags and thrown into rivers [the way adulteresses were executed in Calvin's Geneva], active Christians looked to the Church of Scotland for support.

"But no Church leader ever raised an alarm publicly or privately against Dr Banda's violations of human rights."

Chihana was born near Livingstonia, the mission established by the Church of Scotland in memory of David Livingstone in 1875 to bring Presbyterian-style Christianity to the people of Nyasaland (as colonial Malawi was known) before British rule was established in 1891.

"In many ways the Church of Scotland is the pioneer of our independence," said Chihana. "It gave the people education, not the government. Until 1964 the Church of Scotland was instrumental in working for our independence. To abdicate responsibility now that Malawi is independent is to be regretted."

From Britain, Chihana went to live in exile in Zambia. In April 1992 he accepted a call to return to Malawi to convene a democratic conference.

With support from the country's Catholic leadership, Chihana denounced Banda's Malawi Congress Party as "a party of death and darkness" and called for a referendum to let Malawians choose between a one-party state and a multi-party democracy.

Banda had Chihana arrested and imprisoned for nine months for sedition. Chihana's sympathisers feared that Banda might carry out a threat to feed him to the crocodiles. But under intense pressure from international donors, human rights organisations, the clergy and growing internal resistance, Banda released Chihana and agreed to a referendum on 17 June, 1993.

Banda suffered a humiliating defeat, losing by almost two-thirds of the votes in favour of multi-party politics. Within a year his regime had collapsed and he had been swept from power in Malawi's first multi-party election.

Chihana was hailed as a national hero, but his new political party, the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) could not overhaul another new party, Bakili Muluzi's United Democratic Front (UDF), which enjoyed support in the south, the most populous area of the country.

Nevertheless, Chihana and AFORD performed so well in the first election and the next that Muluzi appointed Chihana agriculture minister. Chihana also served two terms as vice-president, from 1994-6 and in 2003-4.

However, the fortunes of Chihana and AFORD steadily declined in the last decade of his life. His party, beset by destructive internal squabbles, drifted into disarray, eroding Chihana's younger stature as a visionary leader. AFORD's influence became confined to the far north, and by the time of Chihana's death it had only two members in the 193-member parliament.

In a shocking fall from grace, Chihana, who had attacked the Church of Scotland so vehemently, turned his vice-presidential guns on the Scottish Kirk's sister Presbyterian church in Malawi, the Church of Central Africa. When its clergy heavily criticised the shortcomings of the Muluzi-Chihana democratic regime, Chihana gave the clergymen an authoritarian warning not to "meddle" in politics. The Malawi Kirk responded with: "He is a confused fellow. No politician in Malawi can dictate what the Church should do."

Despite his political decline, Chihana was honoured at his death as the pioneer of political pluralism in Malawi. He was given a state funeral in his home village and a 19-gun salute.

Bakili Muluzi, who stepped down from the presidency in 2004 after ten years in power, said: "Chakufwa sacrificed his life and personal happiness to liberate Malawi from the shackles of dictatorship." Malawi's national poet, Bright Molande, said: "He was a national hero. He was the first to openly cast a stone against dictatorship."

He is survived by his wife, Christiane, and son, Enoch.