Opposition Takes Root in Malawi

After 28 years of harsh one-party rule, the people of this land-locked southern African state are demanding the same democratic reforms sweeping through the region

MALAWI'S most prominent dissident recounts without blinking the number of years, months, days, and hours he has spent in a state prison, not charged with any crime.

But what he remembers most is what he was told upon release: "You must be thankful to the life president," he was told, "for this act of mercy."

Already, the anonymous leader of this southern African country's highly secret internal opposition party has gathered 250 like-minded Malawians. Half of those, he estimates, were also victims of the government's arbitrary detention policies.

Most Malawians do not know that the opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) exists, but - at four months old and as Malawi's only known internal opposition group - it is growing in strength and influence.

This internal opposition is finding fertile ground. As democratization sweeps through southern African, church leaders and students are beginning to demand political reform in Malawi.

"In the 1970s, several thousand people were detained by the security forces. They have big families and long memories," one Western diplomat says.

The opposition leader claims that among UDP members are one high-ranking government official and many influential businessmen.

"We could win an election in two weeks if we were legalized," he says in hushed tones, as if his "treasonous" words could be heard beyond this secluded res-taurant table. "We want nothing less from the government than more parties and the freedom to talk."

That is a tall order in Malawi, where criticizing the Banda regime is extremely risky. Banda's iron rule

Hastings Kamuzu Banda has been Malawi's only president since it gained independence from Britain in 1964.

The Ngwazi - or saviour-conqueror, as he is called by his supporters - has refused to acknowledge the wave of reform and multiparty changes now transforming Africa. Foreign journalists are rarely allowed into the country.

Most critics of the government fled Malawi when Dr. Banda put an end to political opposition in 1964. Nonetheless, many dissidents have faced repression and violence inside the country or even in exile in neighboring countries like Zambia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

An exiled journalist, Mkwapatira Mhango, and his entire family, for example, were killed in 1989 when Malawian agents firebombed his house in Zambia.

The UDP leader says his group will be watching to see what progress is achieved at the Paris Club meeting of international donors in early May, where it will be decided how much aid Malawi will receive this year. Western aid in Africa has become increasingly linked to progress on human rights and democracy.

Unless Banda and his inner circle loosen their grip by then, the UDP leader says, "we will take to the streets. We just can't take it anymore." Unrest is mounting

On the surface, Malawians do not appear to be clamoring for revolution. The 28 years of peace under Banda included progress in building health services and infrastructure beyond the level of most African countries.

Nevertheless, Malawi is the fifth poorest country in the world, with an annual per capita income of just $160.

Malawians see the freedoms opening up in the rest of southern Africa. Some point to Zambia, where an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power followed democratic elections last October.

"People are getting fed up with constant assurance that all is OK, when it is patently not," says one Western diplomat, who estimates that Banda's popularity rating has slipped from 80 percent to 20 percent in the last two years.

Open resistance recently was sparked by a critical Lenten letter signed by Roman Catholic bishops and read in every Catholic church March 8. The letter denounced the government's poor human rights record and curbs on freedom of expression.

Within days the pastoral letter was labeled a "seditious document," and a special high-level caucus of the ruling Malawi Congress Party decided that the bishops should be killed for their "treachery," according to church sources.

Amnesty International and the embassies of the United States, Canada, and Britain - which also spoke on behalf of the European Community, launched urgent appeals to the Banda regime to safeguard the bishops. They regarded the Malawi government as responsible for the bishops' safety and demanded to know why the letter was declared seditious.

The incident also had a significant domestic impact. "This letter is dynamic here," says a Western diplomat. "Malawians are now faced with an unprecedented situation: Ordinary people have the sheer audacity to say that all is not right."

University students took the bishops' cue and staged unprecedented demonstrations calling for multiparty democracy. Police made dozens of arrests and dispersed the students with tear gas and bullets, reportedly leaving one young man dead.

Three university campuses subsequently were closed.

"We want change," says one protesting student. "If those exiles abroad come back we could do something. The opposition inside Malawi are silent and afraid, because they know about the 'car accidents' used to get rid of them."

Last month, more than 60 exiled dissidents met in Lusaka, Zambia, where they called the Congress Party the party of "darkness and death."

The UDP leader scoffs at the Lusaka group - Banda opponents who "portray themselves as being responsible for change here. It's an insult because we take all the risks," he says.

"We appreciate what they are doing, but Malawians see them ... talking to reporters while their feet dangle in the pool," he adds.

The internal opposition has begun sending anonymous letters to the leadership, calling on Banda to accept free and fair elections before the end of the year and asking donors to make aid conditional on reforms.

"Malawi is alone in this part of the world in denying people the right even to speak publicly about multiparty [reforms] ... without being arrested and detained," notes one letter that found its way into every member of parliament's mailbox when parliament opened three weeks ago. The next in line

Much of the criticism is aimed at the Minister of State John Tembo. He is a member of the so-called "Royal Family" that advises the president, and is seen as Banda's likely successor.

Mr. Tembo also is chairman of 11 of Malawi's most influential business firms. One anonymous opposition letter accuses him of receiving bribes from Tiny Rowland, the head of the British-based conglomerate Lonrho, which has extensive interests in Malawi.

The government has reacted to the rise in political pressure by staging its own demonstrations.

Gray Land Rovers marked "Malawi Congress Party" and flying the national flag raced through villages, demanding with loudspeakers that people come to a pro-government rally.

The next day, surprised Malawians watched as 1,000 party youth, women with pictures of Banda printed across their shirts, and party officials marched in favor of a single party.

Nonetheless, the UDP leader remains hopeful: "Don't think that they can succeed in intimidating Malawians forever. We will fight them to the end."

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