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Malawi Tries Ex-Dictator in Murder : Africa: Aging autocrat is one of few among continent's tyrants to face justice for regime's abuses.

May 21, 1995|BOB DROGIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLANTYRE, Malawi — During his three decades in power, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda ran a one-man regime marked by brutality, nepotism and whim.

All criticism was banned. So were long hair, short skirts and rock music. It was illegal to refer to the dictator, who rarely appeared without a dark homburg hat and a regal fly whisk, by anything but his self-bestowed title: Life President. It was even taboo to discuss his age.

"Everything is my business," Banda, who is now about 96, once proclaimed. "Everything. Anything I say is law . . . literally law."

But now a new law prevails. Less than a year after Banda was ousted in Malawi's first multi-party elections since independence in 1964, the quirky tyrant and his top aides are on trial here on charges of ordering the grisly murder of four political rivals in 1983.

Banda has avoided being hauled into court so far. His lawyers say his blood pressure is erratic, and the strain could cause a stroke. Frail and ailing, he remains under house arrest in one of his 13 former palaces and plush residences.

But the case marks a watershed for Africa, as well as this impoverished nation of 9.7 million people. Banda was one of the turbulent continent's most durable despots. Now the aging autocrat is among the few to face justice for the ravages of his reign.

"This trial will provide a national catharsis," said Kamudoni Nyasulu, the chief prosecutor. "It's the main reason we're doing it. It's more than a trial of these men. It'll show how the system operated in the past. And it will, I hope, prevent this from happening again."

The trial is in its preliminary stages. The prosecutor still hopes to bring Banda before the judge--and the hundreds of Malawians who gather each morning outside to jeer and taunt the five other defendants. Police use snarling dogs to keep the angry protesters at bay.

"If I meet Banda, I would kill him," said James Gadama, whose father, Aaron, was one of the four politicians clubbed to death with hammers and crowbars by police 12 years ago. "I want revenge."

Others just want to see the former martinet cut to size. The death penalty is mandatory for murder here, but the prosecutor expects a presidential pardon if Banda is convicted.

"I don't think people are interested in seeing him punished," Nyasulu said.

Malawi's approach is in sharp contrast to those in most of Africa.

South Africa's new president, Nelson Mandela, champions reconciliation over retribution. That country's last leader of apartheid, Frederik W. de Klerk, now serves as a deputy president. A handful of police are on trial, but a Truth Commission is expected to grant amnesty for most abuses of the old regime.

In Ethiopia, a war crimes tribunal has charged former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam with murder, torture and other crimes. But Mengistu is in exile in Zimbabwe and is unlikely to be returned. Numerous other African leaders have been violently overthrown, murdered or forced into exile.

But Malawi, a landlocked Kansas-size nation of rugged mountains and vast lakes, has always been different. Unlike so much of Africa, it has never suffered tribal bloodletting, civil war or devastating famine.

Banda deserves some of the credit. Born into poverty, he won a missionary scholarship to Maherry Medical College in Tennessee and later practiced medicine outside London. Returning in 1958 to Nyasaland, as the British colony was called, he took over when independence was granted in 1964.

That put Banda among such African liberation leaders and "Big Men" as Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Julius K. Nyerere in Tanzania, Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Kenneth D. Kaunda in Zambia and Patrice Lumumba in what was then the Congo.

Only Dawda Jawara, who has ruled tiny Gambia since 1965, still clings to power from the founding generation of post-colonial patriarchs.

Like many of his contemporaries, Banda quickly consolidated power and amassed wealth. Malawi became his private fiefdom, albeit a stable one.

Banda was not only head of state and of the only legal political party. He also was minister of foreign affairs, justice, agriculture and public works. He controlled banks, oil, tobacco and construction; diplomats say his vast holdings comprised one-third of the entire commercial sector.

Thuggish, red-shirted Young Pioneers, the armed wing of Banda's Malawi Congress Party, enforced his edicts. Heavily censored newspapers slavishly supported his personality cult. Pictures of Banda, invariably clad in a three-piece suit, hung everywhere.

Human rights groups estimate that 6,000 people were killed, tortured or jailed without trial, often for years. Thousands more fled into exile. Banda warned that they would be "food for crocodiles" if they returned.

"I just commented one time at a pub," recalled Stephen Bausi, a 44-year-old accountant who stood outside the court earlier this month. "I said there should be change in this country. I didn't know security police were in the room. That was it. They took me outside and I was locked up for a week."

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