IN a world where most of the few remaining one-party states are being swept away by pro-democracy movements, one small African nation has so far resisted all calls for democratic freedom. The history of post-colonial Malawi illustrates how a precolonial nationalist hero can turn, almost overnight, into a dictator ruthlessly suppressing any dissent against his rule.
Dr. Kamuzu Hastings Banda became president of Malawi in 1966 at the age of 68; he still holds almost total power, propped up through sustained United States, British, and South African aid over the past 30 years.
His human rights record has been a patchwork of inconsistencies. While providing homes for more than 1 million Mozambican refugees, he has at the same time jailed thousands of political prisoners, many of whom were former Cabinet ministers and high-ranking members of his own Congress Party. Amnesty International has recorded the cases of many political prisoners who have been systematically tortured and died in custody; there is evidence of opposition leaders being murdered by government hit squads.
However, as his reign seems to be coming to a close, Dr. Banda has come under increasing international and internal pressure to instigate multiparty democracy.
The leader of the pro-democracy movement is Chakufwa Chihana, who spent seven years in exile as the head of the Southern African Trade Union Coordination Council and, in September of last year, helped launch the Malawian Alliance for Democracy (AFORD), which Banda immediately banned. When Mr. Chihana returned to Malawi in April 1992 to campaign for the restoration of human rights and democratic change, he was arrested as he stepped off the plane and charged with sedition.
Civil unrest, sparked by displays of popular support for Chihana, began to intensify as he languished in jail, despite the government's characterization of him as a "foreign stooge."
Eight Roman Catholic bishops were arrested for criticizing the government, and riots in the main cities broke out, triggered by Chihana's continued detention without trial.
However, despite international calls for his release, Chihana was convicted of sedition last December and sentenced to 2 1/2 years hard labor, which in Malawi is tantamount to a death sentence.
He appealed and on March 29 his sentence was reduced to nine months, still harsh for a man whose only crime was to call for democratic reform.
Before he returned to Malawi last year he called his family and said: "This is the last time that I will be speaking to you. I am going to Malawi and I will be killed. But if I am killed, people in the international community will know there is something wrong with this government and someone will come to liberate people. "
Even though Chihana remains in jail, Banda has been forced (by the suspension of international aid) to hold a referendum on whether Malawians want to move to a multiparty democracy or not. This will take place on June 14, but at the present it is still illegal to campaign for a multiparty state, and opposition movements are banned from freely operating. The government has even insisted on separate ballot boxes for the `yes' and `no' votes, totally negating the principle of a secret ballot.
Unless the international community applies strong diplomatic pressure, the intimidating tactics of the "Malawi Youth Pioneers" (Banda's private army) will make the referendum a farce.
Malawi has no oil, few natural resources, and is of little strategic benefit to the US, but the West still has a responsibility to help Malawians' longing for democracy to gain expression through a new constitution.
Some in the US Senate recognized this, and a resolution sponsored by US Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, Paul Simon (D) of Illinois, and Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania soon will be debated.
This bipartisan resolution "strongly condemns the continued incarceration of dissidents, restrictions on freedom of speech, and the repeated short-term arrests of opposition leaders in order to impede their pro-democracy efforts."
It also "condemns all efforts by the Malawian government to limit the ability of popular organizations to campaign in relation to the upcoming referendum." The senators argue that the US should not resume aid to Malawi until all political detainees are released, all basic freedoms are respected, and all are permitted to participate freely in the selection of government.
However, while the adoption of this resolution would be a great fillip to the pro-democracy movement, it will require more than the withdrawal of international aid to pressure the Banda government to listen to the will of the Malawian people and introduce democratic reforms.
Where the most basic human rights are abused and democracy is trampled upon, the US, as the only world superpower, should lead the international outcry.
We call on President Clinton to demand the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience in Malawi, including Chakufa Chihana, and to bring pressure to bear on the Banda government to ensure that the June referendum is held under free and fair conditions.