ALMOST no African or Asian state risks calling its despots to account. That is why it is so unusual and so salutary that Malawi has put its recent ''President for Life,'' the American-educated Hastings Kamuzu Banda, on trial for murder.
Dr. Banda, trained for a medical career at the University of Chicago and Indiana University, and at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, outmaneuvered British colonial authorities in the early 1960s, and led Malawi's nationalist movement to power in 1964. Malawi now has about 10 million people and an annual per capita income of less than $250. It is one of the poorest countries in the world, with health and educational deficits to match. AIDS is rampant. Malawi's peasant farmers grow maize for subsistence and tobacco for cash. Tobacco provides 75 percent of the state's meager export earnings.
For 30 years Banda ruled autocratically. He forced the inhabitants of his beautiful sliver of a country astride Lake Malawi, one of the five great lakes of Africa's Rift Valley, to bend abjectly to his personal rule. His official watchwords for the government and the country were ''Unity, Loyalty, Obedience, and Discipline.''
Banda once told visiting foreign businessmen that ''nothing is not my business in this country. Everything is my business. Everything. The state of education, the state of our economy, the state of our agriculture, the state of our transport, everything is my business.''
Banda maintained his grip on the country by imprisoning or otherwise removing opponents who challenged his reign.
A year ago, after Western donors had demanded an end to despotism and the introduction of multiparty democracy, Banda, then about 95, put the question to a national referendum.
To his amazement, voters overwhelmingly favored democracy. In a subsequent election in May, Banda's party was roundly ousted from office.
Power passed to two democratic regional groupings, nearly all the leaders of which had once served successive Banda regimes as cabinet ministers or other officials. Indeed, Malawi's current finance minister had been jailed for trumped-up offenses by Banda for 12 years.
Now Banda, John Tembo (for many years minister of finance and head of the central bank), and two former police officials are all charged with murder in the Malawi High Court. They are accused of arranging the suspicious deaths of three Cabinet ministers and a parliamentarian in 1983. The victims were allegedly bludgeoned to death by policemen on Tembo's orders and with Banda's knowledge.
At least 6,000 other Malawians are believed to have been killed in much the same official manner.
A commission of inquiry had been empaneled last year. After many months of study, and acting like an American grand jury, it reported its findings in January.
Tembo, a man of great wealth, was immediately jailed to await trial. Because of his age and frail health, Banda was confined to one of the 13 palaces that he had constructed during his long reign.
It is unusual in the annals of Africa that an autocrat of Banda's formidable ego and total control was persuaded to relax his grip and live to see power pass to persons he hitherto had contemptuously called ''my boys.''
The trial of Banda, Tembo, and others, whatever its outcome, will allow the new democratic forces in Malawi to set an example of open justice and transparent accountability for Africa. That will be a major accomplishment.