Remembering Nyasaland’s Ngwazi Sing’anga, the President for Life

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One of the importances of history, social scientists argue, is that it serves as a light that illuminates the present and provides clarity on future prospects. This is what Roman political theorist Marcus Tullius Cicero meant when he said that “history is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalises memory [and] provides guidance in daily life.”

British archaeologist Robin George Collingwood shares the same sentiments that “history is for human self-knowledge … the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.” The madness characterising the Namibian body politic necessitates the invocation of history to help us understand the present.

In Nyasaland, present-day Malawi, there once lived a man called Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. He was its first president from 1964 until 1994. Banda was one of the most ruthless dictators to have walked the earth. He reduced Malawi to his personal fiefdom.

As Malawi Congress Party (MCP) president, Banda used the party’s 1970 congress to have him declared as MCP president for life. A year later, in 1971, Malawi’s legislature followed this madness and declared Banda as Malawi’s president for life. Like other African leaders, Banda did not lack an appetite for titles and an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

It was mandatory to address him as ‘His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malawi, Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda.’ The title ‘Ngwazi’ is a Chichewa term that is associated with terms such as ‘great lion’, ‘chief of chiefs’ or ‘conqueror’.

He was not alone. Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) dictator, Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, had a similar title: “Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga”. This was translated to ‘the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’.

Idi Amin of Uganda chose this title for himself: “His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular”. The examples in this regard are too many to list here.

While Banda’s dictatorship was similar to other African dictators, his strategies and tactics differed in various respects. Unlike other dictators who solely relied on coercive apparatus to ensure autocracy, Banda used three skilful methods to assert his power and sustain his dictatorship as outlined by Malawian academic Wiseman Chirwa:

Propaganda, tradition and mythology as grand strategies supported by brutality.

He did not accept any challenge to his rule. Shortly after independence, some cabinet ministers proposed some reform to the use of state power. He interpreted this as attempts to limit his powers. Some ministers such as Henry Chipembere, William Chiume, Yatuta Chisiza and Willie Chokani expressed concern with Banda’s constant reference to ministers as ‘my boys’. Banda saw this as a rebellion against him and therefore decided to dismiss these ministers. Others resigned in protest.

The dismissed ministers and those who resigned fled to neighbouring Zambia and Tanzania. Banda then ran a propaganda campaign labelling former ministers as ‘rebels’, ‘reactionaries’ and disturbers of peace and stability.

The second method was the use of tradition to sustain dictatorship. Given the position of women in society and the power dynamics in a patriarchal Malawi, Banda used women for political gain while projecting himself as concerned with women issues. Consider what he thought was women empowerment. “You know we have two women in parliament now. I want more! I want at least five,” he once said.

The real role of women in Banda’s dictatorship was entertainment. At every event he had women singing and dancing. Expressing his satisfaction to dancing women, Banda had this to say: “When I see my women happy and singing and dancing with their heads high, their necks bent with pride like that … it makes me happy, very happy.”

In 1968, Banda praised singing and dancing women. “Those who danced yesterday have danced here again. You did not say: oh we danced yesterday. You did not say that. But you came here to dance. All this makes me feel very happy because I came here in 1958 to free you so that you can be free and be happy.”

On the 21st of January 1971, while departing for Singapore, he thanked the women for playing their role in entertaining him. Listen to him. “I also want to thank you for entertainment given to me this morning. You have sung for me. You have danced for me. In every one of your songs there was a story. A story to thank me, and to a great extent, to praise me for what I have done for you.”

Banda’s dictatorship used mythology as a strategy to consolidate his power. He frequently made use of Chewa tradition to project himself as possessing supernatural powers. His frequent reference to ‘Sing’anga’ (traditional doctor) was interpreted by the illiterate masses, who were a majority, as a confirmation of his possession of supernatural powers. It is for this reason that the masses refused to express negative views on Banda because they believed that Banda could hear them even when he was 10,000 kilometres away.

The story of Banda, Ngwazi Sing’anga, provides rich suggestive insights to what is happening in Namibian body politic today. Let society be clear and politicians warned. The fight for the title of ‘Swapo President’, even by those who legally are not, is reminiscent of Banda’s love for titles.

History is recording. Yours truly understands also that last weekend at Keetmanshoop, those in attendance of the Swapo rally were encouraged to clap hands. This is reminiscent of Ngwazi’s salutations of women who sang and clapped hands for him. Indeed, the unceremonious and in some instances illegal axing of those seen to have different views to those leading Swapo, including ministers, reminds us of how Banda fired several ministers who held a different view.

While Banda used the Ngwazi Sing’anga narrative to scare the masses in obedience, Swapo leaders use the narratives of Libya and Iraq to appeal to the fragile psyche of gullible masses. President Hage Geingob’s reference to those with a different view as ‘failed politicians’ reminds the thinking of the so-called rebels in Malawi. The value of this history, as Robin George Collingwood submits, is that it gives us a clue to what man can do by studying what man has done.

* Job Shipululo Amupanda teaches political science at the University of Namibia.

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