Does Washington have a role in saving African politician's life?

The United States faces a dilemma in dealing with one of its friends in Africa, Malawi. The country - a former British colony sandwiched between Mozambique and Zambia - has been ruled since 1964 by Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

The self-styled President-for-Life may decide at any moment whether one of his former colleagues, who eventually opposed his rule, will live or be executed.

The politician whose life hangs in the balance is Orton Edgar Chirwa, Malawi's first minister of justice, who was kidnapped from his home in Zambia 16 months ago by Malawi's secret police. Dr. Chirwa's wife, Vera, a lawyer, was kidnapped, too.

The Chirwas were taken to the Malawi capital of Lilongwe, tried for treason, and convicted last month of conspiring to overthrow Dr. Banda. They were sentenced to death.

The tribal courts that convicted the Chirwas are presided over by untrained chiefs who avoid Western legal procedures. The Chirwas were not allowed to have defense attorneys. Neither were they permitted to consult with each other.

The main evidence against the couple was an interview with the British Broadcasting Service, which was critical of Banda. But the trial appears mostly to be about the settling of old scores. Banda has never forgiven numerous former colleagues, including Chirwa, who turned against his increasing authoritarianism.

il11l,0,18l,6p Chirwa was one of Banda's chief lieutenants when Banda led the Malawi Congress Party in its independence struggle from 1958 to 1964. A lawyer, he became Malawi's first minister of justice after independence in 1964.

But later Chirwa turned against Banda's autocratic rule and fled with his wife to Tanzania. He joined the Tanzanian attorney-general's office and founded the Malawi Freedom Movement, an exile group opposed to Banda.

Henry Masauko Chipembere, William Kanyama Chiume, and Yatuta Chisiza - all former Malawi Cabinet ministers under Banda - worked with Chirwa in opposition to Banda.

Mr. Chisiza was killed by Malawi's Army while attempting with a small force to invade the country.

The time for the Chirwas to appeal their sentence has come to a close. If it is denied, Banda may exercise clemency.

Freedom of speech and freedom of assembly vanished from Malawi with independence. So did freedom of worship. Banda has forbidden opposition parties.

Banda has long been close to the US. His country has been run relatively pragmatically. Until recently, free enterprise served Malawi well. But the country has come into severe financial difficulties.

Malawi is asking for international aid and a renegotiation of its debts. The sensitivity of those discussions may impel Dr. Banda to moderate the sentences meted out to the Chirwas. But American pressure may also be needed if the Chirwas are to be spared - and time appears to be running out.

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