Rights Groups Urge Release Of Malawi Trade Unionist

Before his arrest, activist promoted alliance for reform

AS an apostle of democracy in one of Africa's most enduring dictatorships, Chakufwa Chihana has no doubt about the correctness of his cause.

"The people of Malawi have decided enough is enough," he told the Monitor in his Johannesburg hotel room April 4 shortly before returning to his home country where he was arrested within minutes of landing April 6.

As he read from a prepared speech on the tarmac at Malawi's Lilongwe airport, Mr. Chihana was bundled into an automobile by security agents and has not been seen since. Hours later five labor officials close to him were also detained.

Chihana - as chairman of a recently elected "interim committee" on democracy - told the Monitor that he was going to promote a broad alliance of church leaders, trade unionists, intellectuals, and businessmen to call for a national conference that would determine how multiparty rule could be established.

Chihana is a member of the recently formed United Front for Multiparty Democracy in Malawi.

Front leader George Kanyanya warned from his exile headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, over the weekend that the Malawian government would face a popular revolt if any harm came to Chihana.

"We are worried about why he, President Hastings Banda, should be hiding Mr. Chihana," Mr. Kanyanya said.

Western diplomats in Harare, Zimbabwe, said Chihana had been moved from a prison detention camp in Lilongwe to some unknown destination. But diplomatic pressure since his arrest appears to have had some effect.

Western diplomats said last week that the Malawian authorities appeared to be trying to build a case of treason against Chihana rather than merely detaining him indefinitely under arbitrary detention laws.

The soft-spoken trade unionist languished for six years in a Malawian jail cell from 1971 to 1977 - nearly five years of which was spent in solitary confinement. For much of the time he was in leg-irons and he survived beatings and torture.

Now he has gone back to Malawi and back to detention - but this time he is full of hope that his return will fuel a "yearning for freedom" among his countrymen in a nation where political dissent is outlawed.

Foreign journalists are not allowed to work in the country and the Malawian press is tightly controlled.

As secretary-general of the Southern African Trade Union Coordinating Council - a regional trade union body representing over 10 million workers in 12 southern African countries - Chihana's stature and influence reaches beyond the borders of land-locked Malawi. He hopes that the tide of democracy sweeping through Africa will soon engulf his country, which last had an election 28 years ago.

Since independence in 1964, President-for-life Hastings Kamuzu Banda - now well into his 90s - has ruled the country with an iron fist.

Dr. Banda has said that any opponents of his one-party rule who return to Malawi will be made "meat for crocodiles."

"If Dr. Banda thinks that by killing me he is stopping the will of the Malawian people he is wasting his time," Chihana said during his four-day stop-over on his way from mobilizing Malawian exiles in Zambia en route to Lilongwe airport.

"We will not stop until Malawi is a democratic country," he said with a quiet resolve.

Chihana told the Monitor that he was fully expecting to be arrested when he returned to Malawi. But he was not fearful.

"My insurance policy is the will of the Malawian people," he said.

The United States embassy in Lilongwe has protested against Chihana's arrest and the British Government has called on the Banda regime to release him. The US, Britain, and Canada have suspended bilateral aid to Malawi but will continue humanitarian aid - mainly for the 1 million or so Mozambican refugees in the country.

"We appreciate the sudden and dramatic abandonment of Dr. Banda by the West," Chihana said. "I hope Dr. Banda reads the signals."

South Africa is one of the last countries providing financial and military assistance to the Banda regime, and Malawi remains the only African country with which Pretoria has full diplomatic ties.

"We are appealing to South Africa to join the Western countries," Chihana said. "It will lose much by sustaining Dr. Banda now."

South Africa has so far refused to support moves by the US and the European Community demanding democratic reforms and the release of Chihana.

"Our view is that - even though we are busy democratizing in South Africa - we can't interfere in Malawi's internal affairs and can't be prescriptive in any way regarding how they [the Banda regime] handle these issues," says South African ambassador to Malawi, Hugh Stroebel.

Chihana said that one of the most important benefits of establishing democracy in Malawi would be the possibility of a peace settlement in Mozambique.

Malawi has provided the main supply route to the antigovernment Renamo rebels in Mozambique, who were frustrating peace talks brokered by the Vatican. Once the Banda regime was ousted all assistance to Renamo would stop, he said.

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