Sunday, October 19, 2014

Malawians Debate Hiving Off North of Already-Tiny Country to Form “Nyika Republic”


The number of African countries which do not have an active separatist movement has shrunk by one more, as the Republic of Malawi, a remarkably slender sliver of land wedged between Mozambique and Zimbabwe in southern Africa, is having its unity challenged by a separatist movement in its Northern Region.


In May of this year, the Progressive Democratic Party (P.D.P.) was voted in to replace the People’s Party (P.P.), whose charismatic president, Joyce Banda, a champion of women’s rights, was more popular internationally than at home.  (Only Africa’s second female president ever, she was also a champion of gay rights.)  The new president, Peter Mutharika, a Yale-educated lawyer and diplomat and brother of a former president, has angered P.P. supporters by stuffing 80% of his cabinet with fellow residents of Malawi’s Southern Region.  Banda had been vice-president under Mutharika’s brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, until she succeeded him upon his death in 2012.  Though also a southerner, Banda’s constituency was a big tent and she worked hard not to show preference for one region over another.  Her succession to the post was assailed since she had become a critic of the first President Mutharika’s policies.

Joyce Banda
The governer of Malawi’s Northern Province, the Rev. Christopher Nzomera Ngwira, has now proposed breaking the northern region off as a separate “Nyika Republic.”  Ngwira (shown on the left in the photo at the top of this article) is from the P.P., which Banda had founded.  The Malawi Congress Party, which is now the main opposition party, is calling instead for a federal system in which each of the three administrative regions will have considerably enhanced powers—a position to which the current President Mutharika’s party has in recent weeks had to pay serious attention.

Map showing hotbeds of separatist sentiment in Malawi’s north
The president of the Peoples Transportation Party (PETRA) and Lucius Banda (no relation to Joyce), a traditional African musician and former political prisoner who now leads the United Democratic Front’s parliamentary delegation, have both called for a referendum to decide the matter.


Federalism is a controversial topic in Malawi.  Under British rule, Malawi, then known as Nyasaland, was part of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a vast macro-colony sprawling across southern Africa’s interior whose touted “federalism” was a cruel joke that belied the injustices of apartheid.  Thus, Malawi’s first president and hero of the independence movement, Hastings Kamuzu Banda (once again, no relation), a U.S.-educated physician, in 1964 organized the fledgling Republic of Malawi as a strong unitary state.  Thus the country’s three administrative regions are blandly named the Northern, Southern, and Central regions.  Banda was a member of the Chewa ethnic group which forms 90% of the population of Central Region; Chewas are the largest ethnic group in Malawi, about a third of its total population.  (Fun fact: when Banda was at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and ’30s, he studied history but also got to know prominent anthropologists like Edward Sapir and collaborated with the legendary folklorist Stith Thompson on recording Chewa traditions.  When I studied anthropology at the University of Chicago in the 1990s, a huge number of ethnological works on Africa in the university library bore book-plates announcing their donation by “President for Life” Hastings Banda.  Therefore I owe him something of an intellectual debt, though the wealth that paid for those books was pillaged from the Malawian people under his party dictatorship.  Dr. Banda’s regime was cosy with apartheid-era South Africa and murdered perhaps as many as 18,000 political opponents.)

Hastings Kamuzu Banda and the Prince of Wales during a state visit in 1972
Malawian politics have been tumultuous since Hastings Banda’s removal in 1994 ushered in a belated crash course in multi-party democracy on the part of the Malawian people.  There seems to be an emerging, and also long-overdue, consensus that politics should be less centralized.  Whether this can be done before Northern Region secessionists became frustrated enough to push for separation more aggressively remains to be seen.  We will keep readers posted.

The Malawian flag introduced by the first President Mutharika in 2010.
It replaced an earlier version showing only the top half of the sun;
some had pointed out that that one could be interpreted as a setting sun just as well as a rising one.


[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  (That is shorter than the previous working title.)  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]




Two heads-of-state-for-life inspect Malawian troops in 1972.

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