Malawi declared its independence in July 1964 under the leadership of Dr. Hastings Banda.
Banda’s rule proved to be harsh. Those of his opposition who weren’t silenced were driven into exile. Through his business dealings, Banda also controlled the economy completely. As if that weren’t enough power, Banda declared himself ‘President for Life’ in 1971. A cosy relationship with South Africa helped the construction of the new capital, Lilongwe (it had previously been at Blantyre), which opened for business in 1975.
The first elections since independence were held in 1978 – a farce, really, considering that Banda personally vetted everyone who intended to run, disqualifying 90% of the field right off the top by submitting potential candidates to an English test. As the 1980s wore on it became increasingly clear that Banda was Malawi – running the political system, the ruling party and the economy. One newspaper estimated that 250,000 people disappeared or were murdered during Banda’s 30 year reign. By the 1990s, however, opposition to Banda’s totalitarian one-party rule grew, spurred on by the end of the Cold War and the drying up of aid to the west’s ‘client states’ – such as Malawi.
The critical moment came in 1992, when Catholic bishops released a pastoral letter condemning Banda, touching off demonstrations throughout the country. When donor countries cut off all non-humanitarian aid until Banda agreed to relinquish power, the final nail in the coffin went home. Over 80% of the electorate took part in a 1993 referendum, voting for a new system over Banda by a 2-1 ratio. Despite the brief threat of a military coup, multi-party elections went ahead the following year.
Bakili Muluzi, a Muslim from Machinga in the south, emerged as the new president. Muluzi immediately freed prisoners, reestablished freedom of speech and the press and lifted the unofficial night curfew that had marked the Banda years. Banda himself was tried in 1995 for ordering the murder of three government ministers but was acquitted, later apologising for any suffering he may have ‘unknowingly caused’.
Muluzi won over 50% of the vote in the 1999 presidential election. In 2002, he attempted to change the constitution to give himself life presidency. While he was feathering his nest, the country was going through a catastrophic drought, and a water hyacinth problem was choking Lake Malawi and surrounding waters. Compounding this litany of misadventure was a sky-high AIDS/HIV infection rate that received precious little resourcing, and an intake of thousands of refugees fleeing instability in Zimbabwe. Bakili Muluzi was replaced in the election of 2003 by Bingu Wa Mutharika.
A railway line linking the country to the Mozambican port of Nacala reopened in September 2002 after a 20 year closure, providing a direct link to the Indian Ocean.
Source: Lonely Planet