"It's shameful that the UDF party wants to take us back to the dark days,"

Mr Gwanda Chakuamba (2003)

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Letter from Africa: Africa looks back on its pioneering leaders

By Howard W. French
Published: May 18, 2007

KASUNGU, Malawi: A surprising exercise in revisionism is taking place in this quiet country, a southern African democracy tucked away in an obscure corner of Africa's Rift Valley that is not generally known for surprises or, for that matter, news.

Rival political parties here are competing over ways to honor the country's first president, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a man whose stern and prolonged rule would have to place him near the top of any list of Africa's most absolutist leaders.

To know the full, official name of this man, who died in 1997, after 31 years of rule is to get the picture. Newspapers were obliged to call him His Excellency The Life President (Paramount Chief) Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the Ngwazi. The unfamiliar last word means conqueror in Chichewa, the national language. For good measure, Banda, who was indeed a medical doctor, also carried the titles of minister of foreign affairs, defense, justice and agriculture.

Despite Banda's many excesses, including calling political opponents "food for crocodiles," the Malawian Parliament recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of honoring him. This follows the construction, a few years ago, of an expensive mausoleum in the capital, Lilongwe.

These days, in a country that has managed to democratically elect two presidents in Banda's wake, the country's politicians are locked in a contest to claim his mantle, which the current president, Bingu wa Mutharika, summed up simply in a recent speech, saying that Banda had devised a "development agenda for the country."

In the Freudian world, true adulthood only comes after the death of one's parents, and it is in this light that what is happening in Malawi, and indeed in many African countries today, is most striking. The continent's first generation of leaders, larger-than-life men who very often made outsized mistakes, frequently gave way to a second wave of leaders who rejected their legacies and renounced their politics.

In many cases, these second-generation men had little notion of how to govern beyond the obsession with being "anti" figures: anti-Banda, anti-Nkrumah, anti-Lumumba, etc. In their haste to emerge from the large shadows of their predecessors, big new mistakes were made, and lessons that should have been absorbed were discarded.

Throughout, the West, which regarded all of this with a distracted eye, understood little. This remarkable first generation of African leaders was treated in almost comic book fashion, blindly patronized in the face of real excesses, in the case of a Banda or of a Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Ivory Coast, or reduced to two dimensional caricatures, alternately evil or buffoonish.

In retrospect, what most often separated the two groups were the outside world's own ideological sympathies. What has most often been lost in the exercise of this triage is an appreciation for the difficult choices that these early leaders faced, and for the fact, as Malawians are rediscovering, that many of their decisions were indeed inspired.

At independence, in country after country, university graduates were few and indigenous lawyers, doctors, economists and engineers could often be counted on a single hand. Africa was truly starting from scratch, without so much as an entrepreneurial class, and was expected to make the Western-style political structures it inherited function with the flick of a switch.

Looking back, it should not surprise us that for so long so many failed, but rather that 50 years after Ghana became the first sub-Saharan country to emerge from European colonialism, quite a few have succeeded.

There is no better place to remember the staggering challenges of that era than in this small town, all but lost on an endless plain of largely empty scrubland that bakes under a giant sky that seems impossibly blue.

Here, very nearly in the middle of nowhere, Banda built his most famous creation, the Kamuzu Academy, an Eton-like school complete with teachers from Britain. Banda exhorted the poor masses in his country to strive for the essentials: "enough food, decent clothes, roofs that don't leak." At great expense, meanwhile, with an eye to the future, he invested in creating a new class of the best and brightest, schooling them in the classics and insisting on discipline.

Even now the choice seems like an eccentric one, but we forget all too easily the onrush of events of the last 50 years, and the triumphal narrative that has accompanied it in the West. The pressures of outside powers during the Cold War impelled leaders to choose between two competing models: statist authoritarian and nominally leftist on the one side and capitalist and democratic, if only nominally so, on the other.

As clear as the choices may appear today, they were anything but at the time. The state planning models of the East had scored considerable economic gains in the era just before Africa's choices were made, and building an all-powerful state seemed like an attractive answer to the dilemma of how to emerge from stark underdevelopment. We also forget how Jim Crow and other blemishes served as powerful antidotes to America's democratic rhetoric in Africa.

The early leaders who are remembered fondly, and they are surprisingly many, managed to distill valuable lessons from the staggering hardship and chaos that surrounded them. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and even the ephemeral Patrice Lumumba understood the importance of an African identity of cultural confidence. Dismissed in the West, they are remembered fondly well beyond their own borders.

Banda was of a decidedly different stripe, but his message of hard work, order and respect, a message shared by the likes of Houphouët-Boigny, Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon and others, enjoys increasing resonance today, too.

"Banda was 50 percent very good and 50 percent very bad man," said Desmond Phiri, Malawi's most prominent historian. "He was highly patriotic. He took very keen interest in his country, which is not typical of Malawians."

The assessment reminds one of China's official, 70-30, verdict on Mao Zedong, another founder whose prestige remains high at home and who was fond of saying that revolution, like making omelets, can't be achieved without breaking eggs.

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