Malawi: The Colonial Period (1891-1964)

Extracted from: "Malawi" IN Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa (2002), edited by Tom Lodge, Denis Kadima and David Pottie, EISA, 119-121.

The British Protectorate of Nyasaland was established in 1891. Through a system of district administration it achieved a high degree of administrative and legal penetration. White settlers introduced a cash crop economy, while many Africans were given unprotected tenancies, with few legal rights to the land they cultivated. Grievances against the injustices of the early colonial system led to the unsuccessful Chilembwe uprising in 1915. Christianization, education, modern commercial practices and urbanization facilitated the replacement of parochial affinities. A common identification with Nyasaland as a territory developed relatively quickly.

From the early 1920s so called "native associations" continually focused on issues such as the inadequacy of educational facilities and the assault on African land rights. In addition, by the 1930s it had become clear that the colonial policy of undermining the traditional authority of chiefs and headmen and of attempting to implement a form of direct rule in traditional administration, had met with failure. This problem was temporarily resolved by the introduction of a system of indirect rule. Meanwhile, the African associations also started to petition for direct representation in decision making institutions such as the legislative council; and in 1944 the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) was formed, linking (on a non ethnic basis) African associations, independent churches and other groups of educated Africans.

After World War II, the volume and intensity of demands for direct representation increased and were reinforced by an insistence on universal adult suffrage. At the same time, the contact of migrant workers with conditions in neighbouring territories, as well as the experiences abroad of African soldiers during World War II, generated a growing sense of dissatisfaction among Nyasaland Africans with their general state of underdevelopment and lack of material benefits. In the 1950s, the consequences of incorporation into the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland accentuated this awareness. The practical manifestation of their economic deprivation and inadequate social services consolidated African opposition to federation. The enforcement of unpopular agricultural measures, resulted in a growing radicalization of the rural masses and the consequent collapse of district administration.

In fact, the imposition of federation on the African peoples of Nyasaland served as a catalyst for political discontent. Whereas the African associations and a rather ineffectual NAC had previously always been prepared to operate within the parameters of the colonial framework and utilize constitutional mechanisms in bargaining about grievances, the nationalist movement now not only questioned the legitimacy of the existing colonial system but also actively challenged it. A campaign of civil disobedience (aimed especially at agricultural measures and land rights) was launched and strikes, disturbances and violence became everyday events.

The reactivation of the NAC and its subsequent conversion by the late 1950s into a mass political movement, the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), through the mobilization of the rural African population, exerted almost massive pressure on the colonial government. Determined Malawian opposition between 1953 and 1963 to the creation of the Central African Federation reinforced anti colonial sentiment. Anti federation nationalist campaigning was vigorous. In 1958 Dr H Kamuzu Banda returned to Malawi from Ghana to add his seniority to a movement led by young activists. The rapidly growing radicalization of the African population, and the general condition of unrest and violence precipitated the crisis of 1959, when a state of emergency had to be declared. Scores of nationalists, including Dr Banda, were imprisoned and accused of plotting armed rebellion; but an enquiry led by Lord Devlin largely exonerated them.

The British authorities were obliged to choose between maintaining control by armed force and preparing the territory for independence. Following in the slipstream of the march towards decolonization elsewhere in Africa, two constitutional conferences were held in London in the early 1960s. Elections held in Nyasaland in August 1961, gave the MCP a decisive victory (for more detail see Pre-independence election of 1961). First, the British government conceded representative government to Nyasaland. In quick succession, the principle of African majority rule was confirmed with the introduction of responsible government, internal self government in January 1963, the dissolution of the Central African Federation, and the granting of independence on 6 July 1964 (see also Pre-independence election of 1964). Nyasaland now became the independent state of Malawi.