The British Empire Library

Revolt of the Ministers: The Malawi Cabinet Crisis 1964-1965

by Colin Baker

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Bill Peters (Gold Coast 1950-59: Head of Zambia and Malawi Dept., FCO 1967-68: British High Commissioner, Malawi 1980-83)
A book is long overdue about the events in 1964 which led eventually to the flight of the six ministers of the Government of Malawi who opposed legislation put forward by Dr Banda as Prime Minister in Parliament in a mammoth session on 8/9 September 1964. The issues were siting the University at Zomba, the location of the new capital at Lilongwe, government housing, civil service salaries, charges for hospital treatment, foreign policy (particularly recognition of Taiwan rather than the PRC), Dr Banda's tending to regard Government as his personal property, failing to consult Ministers and nepotism favouring John Tembo, nephew of the official hostess, Cecilia Kadzimira; in other words, a range of issues on policy affecting democratic governance, social and fiscal management, major development projects affecting regional balance and distribution of power, and Malawi's alignment in the Cold War; a not inconsiderable agenda facing a newly independent country. Colin Baker has produced a hefty volume of 324 pages dealing minutely, almost laboriously, with all the factors leading to the breach between a well qualified group of Malawians who played leading roles in bringing an expatriate Malawian more than twice their age back, after over 40 years, to the country he left in his youth and in constructing for him the political base on which Malawi's independence was achieved. Baker has obviously collected almost all the extant paper on the events he surveys and, during his colonial career in Nyasaland/Malawi, knew all the principals in the drama. Most of them were, like Banda himself, prison graduates.

The book sketches the preceding events from Banda's return to the achievement of independence, without however dealing with the break-up of the Central African Federation covered in another of the author's detailed studies of Nyasaland. Perhaps the most interesting subordinate issue dealt with is Chipembere's attempted coup in February 1965 based on Mangochi, a forlorn attempt to rouse the country against Banda, defeated as much by the incompetence of the plotters (ferry on the wrong side of the Shire River) and lack of co-ordination with potential allies as by the lethargic counter measures of the security forces. The involvement of the US Ambassador and CIA in Chipembere's escape to America and the foreknowledge of it (if not participation) of the British High Commissioner is confirmed by documentary evidence. The FCO's later judgement that the attempt was "purely political", not sufficient cause ("flimsy grounds") for having him prosecuted when he proposed to visit Britain, betrays an underlying sympathy for Chipembere and his colleagues, as evinced when the Chirwas were captured and imprisoned after their imprudent return to Malawi in 1982, as well as full awareness of Banda's authoritarian excesses, the principal cause of the Revolt and of subsequent internal crises (eg the imprisonment of Aleke Banda in 1980 and the state murders of Dick Matenje, Aaron Gadama and others in 1983).

In preferring Banda the British Government backed stability and a degree of financial propriety, as well as securing a base for action against UDI and the insulation of Malawi from communist influences; Banda was rewarded with preferential aid which he carefully protected from malversion while raiding his Treasury's other resources when need arose for his own enterprises (the cause of the break with Aleke Banda). There was probably no alternative; fear of Banda was pervasive and deep. It was only when continued aid was made conditional on opening up democratic choice that his hold slipped; even then he was protected from paying any substantial penalty for his excesses by a meek and surprisingly compassionate people.

Baker's account deals fully with the relationship between Glyn Jones, the Governor- General, and Banda; the latter played his cards, especially the Independence card, so well that at times Glyn Jones appears more an accomplice than a restraining voice; he allowed himself to be misled by Banda's pretence, for example, about contemplating resignation after the Kuchawe Declaration from which the Revolt developed.

Although he draws so extensively on documentary evidence. Baker quotes little of the Zomba Hansard record of 8/9 September 1964. It was, of course, doctored, but gives a vivid impression of the dramatic course of those two days. I liked Peter Moxon's quoted description of one of the tantrums during the debate: "It was like a wilful child denied his bag of sweets;" and his comment, "The ex-ministers on the back bench sat looking on impassively."

British Empire Book
Colin Baker
I.B. Tauris
1 86064 642 5


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