Archaeological evidence of settlements around Lake Malawi dates back to the late Stone and Iron ages. Arab and Portuguese literature of the 17th and 18th centuries mentions the area, once called Maravi or 'reflected light', in apparent reference to sunlight glittering off Lake Malawi.
The pre-colonial Maravi Empire was a loosely defined society of scattered groups of Chewa,Tumbuka, Tonga and Mang'anja who settled at different times during earlier southward migrations of the Bantu, in an area exceeding the boundaries of the present-day Malawi. With a pleasant climate and a large, scenic lake lying in the rift valley, migrating Bantu tribes found Malawi an attractive spot for permanent settlement. The significance of the lake in the lives of the people to the present day is reflected by the concentration around it, of the country's major ethnic groups: the Yao on the southern Lake shore, the Tonga, Tumbuka and Ngonde in the northern shores, and the Chewa in the central region. All are historically agriculturalists.
But the peoples lived under the constant threat of slave raiders and of migrating groups fleeing the wars sparked off by the birth of the Zulu empire in Natal in the 1820s. The Ngoni from the south and the Yao from the east, made some successful invasions, settled among them, trading in agricultural produce and occassionally in ivory and slaves. The territory tasted its first major dose of Christian and colonial influence on the arrival of the missionaries of the Scottish Presbyterian Livingstonia Mission who set up their first posts in the north in 1878.
David Livingstone had visited Lake Nyasa, as it was called then, earlier in 1859. Traders, farmers and settlers of all description followed the missionaries and instituted a policy of 'divide and rule' as their numbers grew. The warriors were pacified or overwhelmed, the slave traders banished, new missions were built and estates established. Colonialism had begun to take root.
THE COLONIAL PERIOD
Chilembwe was educated in America and his uprising was key to reinforcing British distrust of educated Africans, leading to the imposition of Indirect Rule, under which African chiefdoms were played against each other. By 1944, the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) was formed embracing independent churches, native associations and the small crop of newly educated Africans on a non-ethnic basis. In 1951, the British government endorsed proposals by white settlers for a federation with the territories of Northern and Southern Rhodesia. Fearful that the federation would prevent the attainment of independence, African nationalists voiced their opposition to the union- in futility. The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (FRN) was formally established in October 1953 but it lasted for only a decade.
ENDING SETTLER RULE
Dr Banda was released in April 1960. A series of constitutional conferences followed his release and elections were held in August 1961. The MCP won decisively. Full self-government was attained in January 1963; Dr Banda became Prime Minister in February. The hated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dissolved in December the same year, to the joy of the millions of African nationalists who had worked tirelessly to break free of the union.
THE REPUBLIC OF MALAWI
THE CABINET CRISIS
Deep suspicions and Banda's own resentment of opposing views caused a split in the cabinet leading to the resignation of several of his ministers. Banda took the criticisms as an affront on his person and threat to his power base. Disaffection with Banda ignited revolt; in February 1965 Henry Chipembere led an unsuccessful but politically symbolic uprising. His life in apparent danger, Chimpembere fled into exile as Banda's political machinery began to purge the ranks of all dissidents. The MCP was structurally disorganised in the aftermath of the cabinet crisis. Unmoved by the prospect of failure, Banda ruled through the agency of traditional chiefs, in the same manner as the colonial master. By 1973, he had developed a highly personalised autocratic system centred around himself and the MCP. Many Malawians fled the country. The last attempt to challenge his authoritarianism came from his former Minister of Home Affairs Yatuta Chisiza, who led an "invasion" into Malawi in October 1967. Chisiza was killed in an exchange of fire with Malawian forces.
THE BANDA REGIME
In March 1979, Banda admitted that a letter-bomb which had injured the leader of LESOMA, Dr Attati Mpakati, had been sent under his instructions. Mpakati was later deported from his sanctuary in Zambia and found murdered in central Harare, Zimbabwe in 1983 while on a private visit. The Banda government denied any involvement in the killing. In May 1983 the leader of the Malawi Freedom Movement (MAFREMO), Orton Chirwa, and his wife Vera were sentenced to death for treason. Following appeals for clemency by international organisations and heads of state, Banda commuted the sentence to one of life imprisonment. (Orton Chirwa died in prison in October 1992 and Vera Chirwa was released in January 1993). In what observors saw as a blow to the opposition, Gwanda Chakuamba was sent to prison for 22 years for sedition in 1981. But it was the deaths, in 1983, of three prominent politicians that shocked political observers. Dick Matenje, the Secretary-General of MCP and two other senior politicians died in a mysterious car accident, their deaths coming at a time when they were being seen as possible successors to Banda.
Their passing seemed to leave room for John Tembo, Governor of the Central Bank to rise to the echelons of power. The government continued to deny reports by human rights monitors of detentions without trial, torture of opposition leaders and journalists, political assasinations, and in March 1990, the alleged shooting of 20 anti-government protestors. The general elections held in May 1987 (as in the previous elections of 1978 and 1983) were exclusive to MCP candidates. A total of 213 candidates contested 69 of the 112 seats in the National Assembly.
NEW WAVE OF OPPOSITION
Pressure on the government intensified later in the month, when about 80 Malawian political exiles gathered in Lusaka to devise a strategy to precipitate political reforms. In early April Chakufwa Chihana, a prominent trade union leader who had demanded multi-party elections, returned to Malawi from exile and was detained on arrival by the security forces. (He was finally released in 1993). Anti-government riots, industrial unrest in the commercial city of Blantyre, pro-multiparty campaigns engulfed the country. Donors suspended all non-humanitarian aid because of the government's appalling human rights record as police continued to arrest scores of people flashing anti-government literature.
Elections to an enlarged legislature took place in June 1992, at which 675 MCP candidates contested 141 elective seats, were held in June 1992. 45 candidates were retained unopposed, five seats were vacant, due to the disqualification of some candidates, and 62 former members of the National Assembly lost their seats. At the end of June the President nominated 10 additional members to the National Assembly.
The Alliance for Democracy (AFORD), a pressure group operating within Malawi under the chairmanship of Chihana, was formed in September 1992 with the aim of campaigning for democratic political reform. In the same month, the United Democratic Front (UDF) was born. Chaired by Bakili Muluzi, a businessman from the south and a former secretary-general of MCP. Both the UDF and AFORD joined the PAC. The government reacted by forming the President's Committee for Dialogue (PCD), and there began the shift toward a national referendum on the one-party state.
REFERENDUM and TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY
Malawians voted against single-party politics with 63.2 percent opting for change. A total of 67 percent of the electorate participated. Malawi's region-based vote patterns became manifest during the referendum: the north and south strongly opposed one-party politics while the central region, where Banda hailed from, remained loyal to MCP. Immoveable over opposition demands to install a government of national unity, Banda nonetheless agreed to the establishment of a multi-party national executive council to over-see the transition to pluralism and a national consultative council to draft the new constitution.
A one-year interim constitution was introduced in May 1994 prior to elections. Ill-health haunted Banda and in 1993, he had surgery in South Africa. Banda resumed duties only to witness his vaunted Young Pioneer crushed and forcibly disarmed by the army. Banda's reign finally ended with the multi-party elections held on 17 May 1994. Afflicted by disease, Banda died of pneumonia on 25 November, 1997 in Johannesburg's Garden City Clinic reportedly at the age of 99. In the four-candidate presidential contest, Bakili Muluzi, leader of the UDF, obtained 47.3% of the vote and was sworn in as president on 21 May; Banda himself won 33.6 %, and Chakufwa Chihana (of AFORD) 18.6%. The UDF won 84 of the 177 parliamentary seats, the MCP 55 seats and AFORD 36 seats. The UDF dominated in the south, MCP central and AFORD swept all seats in the northern region. Results in two constituencies were invalidated. (Currently, UDF holds 85, MCP 56 and AFORD 36). Malawi emerged out of a one-party dictatorship with one of the most proportionally balanced parliaments in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). The opposition was in pall position to influence change under the new dispensation.
With suspicions between MCP and the new parties still strong, it was expected that UDF-AFORD would forge an alliance. It did not materalise. AFORD instead chose to work with MCP, compelling the UDF to constitute a government without a parliamentary majority.
THE NEW GOVERNMENT
This pattern of regional conciousness, according to some political scientists, has its roots in the division of the country by the colonial power into the three regions-Central, Southern and Northern (the same is true for most of Africa). The demarcations were not entirely for administrative convenience but reflected different economic, social and intellectual experiences (Historians acknowledge, however, that ethnic thinking dates back before colonialism). Political analysts believe the country was further encouraged to fragment on ethnically defined lines by Banda's rearrangement of the political order; where Yao-speaking southerners and the peoples of the northern region were explicitly marginalised. At the same time, there was an affirmation of the special authenticity of the culture of the Chewa-speaking people of the central region. The effect of this is the unmistakeable sway toward regionalism in political-election loyalties.