Malawi slides toward autocracy

NAIROBI, Kenya – Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika has plenty of respect for one of his predecessors, Hastings Banda. So much in fact that he's built a grand mausoleum to house the remains of the country's late founding father, a man remembered more for his brutal rule and bizarre dictats than his independence leadership. Banda ruled for 30-years until he was finally forced out. He was 96.

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Speaking to Britain's Guardian newspaper this week Mutharika said Banda had been misunderstood:

"I don't know whether you can change the minds of those who regard him as a dictator, because it depends upon the definition of what a dictator is.

"Sometimes discipline can be mistaken for dictatorship. Many people believe that, without discipline, you really can't go anywhere. So to what extent he was a dictator, or to what extent he was a strict disciplinarian, I really do not know."

I imagine the scores of political opponents jailed by Banda would be able to tell dictatorship from discipline but Mutharika is showing signs of heading the same way. This week a prominent opponent and former attorney general Ralph Kasambara was arrested without charge, twice. A few days earlier he had reportedly described Mutharika's rule as "dictatorial" and said he should resign.

Amnesty International said Kasambara's detention "indicates the Malawian authorities are willing blatantly to flout the law when it comes to dissenting voices."

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Kasamabara's is not a lone voice. Increasingly tales of repression leak out of Malawi. Mutharika is touchy – he expelled Britain's ambassador last year over a leaked diplomatic cable that was critical of his rule – has deployed his security forces to violently quell anti-government protests and has suffered damaging foreign aid cuts that have helped tip Malawi's weak economy into a tailspin.

All of these are bad signs for the democracy and development of one of the world's poorest countries.


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