Malawians bring down 30-year dictator, 1992-1993


1. To legalize political parties, end single-party rule, and instate multiparty politics.
2. To get political prisoners released, particularly Chikufwa Chihana.

Time period

March, 1992 to June, 1993


Jump to case narrative


Malawi’s 8 Catholic bishops began the campaign, though many diverse groups collaborated in causing the multiparty referendum. In October, the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) was created specifically to campaign nonviolently to end Banda’s regime.


The Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), the Christian Council of Malawi (CCM), the Ecumenical Council of Malawi, the Muslim community, other independent churches, and University students in Zomba, Blantyre, and other areas.

External allies

Foreign aid donors, United Front for Multiparty Democracy (UFMD), workers at David Whitehead’s Textile factory, other workers, the UN, the Church of Scottland, Amnesty International.

Involvement of social elites

Pope John Paul II talked to the bishops and encouraged them to advocate for change.


President Banda and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) government.

Campaigner violence

Students “battled” with police during demonstrations once the police had fired on protestors. During May protests, 38 people were killed. Furthermore, the workers march in May devolved into property destruction, vandalism, and looting.

Repressive Violence

In protests immediately following the pastoral letter, police in Zomba fired at the crowds to “disperse riots”. Also, the government leaders discussed assassinating the bishops. Furthermore, the police fired at workers during their strike. Finally, a militant group of youths called the Young Pioneers violently attacked pro-democracy activists and AFORD members.


Human Rights



Group characterization

Catholic bishops
other church leaders and members
unemployed youth
foreign aid donors
members of the UN

Groups in 1st Segment

University Students
United Front for Multiparty Democracy
Foreign aid donors

Groups in 2nd Segment

the Ecumenical Council of Malawi
Other independent churches
the Christian Council of Malawi (CCM)
the Muslim community
The Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP)

Groups in 5th Segment

United Nations

Additional notes on joining/exiting order

Amnesty International, the Church of Scotland: Not known.

Segment Length

Approximately 2.5 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

6 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


3 out of 3 points

Total points

10 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

A multiparty system was attained and many political prisoners were released, including Chihana.

Database Narrative

By the early 1990s, President Hastings Kamuzu Banda of the
Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had been president of Malawi for thirty years, ever
since the country transitioned out of colonial rule. At the time, Malawi was a
single-party state in which political parties were illegal.

Pope John Paul II had a significant part in starting the
campaign for multiparty politics. He went to Malawi in 1989 to urge the bishops
to do something to alter Malawi’s poor political and human rights conditions.
When the bishops did nothing, the Pope met with them in Rome to insist again on
action. Upon returning from Rome, the bishops began the new campaign.

On March 8, 1992, Malawi’s eight Catholic bishops wrote a
pastoral letter called Living in Our Faith, which was read in churches
throughout Malawi. The letter denounced the government’s rigid censorship of
mass media, infringement on education, and frequently illegal imprisonment of
hundreds of Malawians. Two days later, the Bishops were arrested by the
government, and detained and interrogated for eight hours. Inspired by the
letter, university students in Zomba began demonstrations that spread to other
areas of Malawi. Police fired at the demonstrators and the students, who were reported
to have “battled” with police.

Junior army officers protected the students from the police
and encouraged them to protest. A month later, senior and middle ranking army
officials told President Banda that they would not take part in any suppression
of Malawians who wanted multipartyism.

From March 20 to March 23, 80 exiled opposition activists
met in Zambia, meeting as the United Front for Multiparty Democracy. Following
the conference, Chikufwa Chihana returned from exile and was arrested that day after
making a speech calling for multiparty politics. Upon his arrest, pro-democracy
campaigners held more demonstrations.

Meanwhile, tapes were discovered in which government members
discussed the possibility of assassinating the bishops, which led to more
demonstrations. Throughout all this, the army firmly continued to remain

When President Banda asked for foreign aid from the
Consultative Group of the World Bank, who were meeting in Paris on May 11, his
request for $800 million was denied. The aid donors told Banda that aid would
remain suspended until the human rights and political conditions in his country
changed. In the meantime, the donors only sent humanitarian aid. Due to
pressure from aid donors, Banda had already released 88 political prisoners.

On May 4, David Whitehead’s 3000 textile factory workers
went on strike. They demanded that Chihana be released from prison and that
Malawi become a multiparty state. Because the factory boss was in business with
Banda, the strike was equivalent to a direct challenge of Banda. The strike was
disbanded that same day, but the workers returned on May 6 to march to the city
center. They were joined by unemployed youth, students, and other workers.
Police fired with live ammunition at the protestors, which lead to violence on
the side of the campaigners. The situation devolved into looting of shops,
destruction of property, and vandalism. 38 people died during the events.

In August more churches joined the push for multipartyism.
Initially, the Livingstonia Synod of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian
(CCAP) created a committee to press for a referendum on multiparty politics.
Then an open letter was sent out by the Christian Council of Malawi (CCM) with
the approval of its churches. The Ecumenical Council of Malawi, the Muslim
community, and other churches also supported the campaign.

In October, the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) formed with
the intention of stopping Banda’s dictatorship. AFORD embodied a nonviolent
ideology, claiming it would “campaign openly through peaceful and lawful means”
(Ihonvbere 230).

Throughout this period of time, the Young Pioneers (a
militant youth group created by Banda) constantly flogged and intimidated protestors.  They even attacked Chihana’s lawyer by
throwing stones.

On October 18, 1992, President Banda announced that a
referendum would be held regarding multiparty politics. Meanwhile, in December,
Chihana was sentenced to two years in prison, which caused more demonstrations.
On December 31, 1992, Banda decreed that the referendum would be held on March
15, 1993. Members of the opposition complained that the date was too soon and
would not allow them sufficient time to campaign. Finally, the United Nations
sent Banda a letter, which convinced him to move the referendum to June 15,
1993 so that the United Nations could be there to monitor the proceedings. On
June 14, Chihana was released from prison and the next day the referendum
occurred. Of the total number of registered voters, 67% voted that day, and of
those voters 63.5% voted for multiparty politics.

In response to the referendum’s outcome, a 14-person
committee was set up to determine what sections of the constitution needed to
be edited so that multiparty politics would become legal. Parliament officially
amended the constitution on June 29, 1993, turning Malawi into a country with
multiparty politics where political parties were legal.

At this time, the army, which had remained neutral, disbanded
the Young Pioneers.

The next election was set for May 1994. The main three
competing parties were the MCP, the United Democratic Front (UDF), and AFORD.
UDF candidate Bakili Muluzi was elected president and Banda relinquished his position
as president. 


Brown, Stephen. “‘Born-Again Politicians Hijacked our Revolution!’: Reassessing Malawi’s Transition to Democracy.” Canadian Journal of African Studies. Vol. 38, No. 3 (2004).

Ihonvbere, Julius O. “From Despotism to Democracy: the Rise of Multiparty Politics in Malawi.” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 2 (June 1997), pp. 225-227.

Newell, Jonathan. “‘A Moment of Truth’? The Church and Political Change in Malawi, 1992.” The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2 (June 1995), pp. 243-262.

Additional Notes

The army remained neutral throughout the campaign, protecting students during their protests. This may be an instance of third party nonviolent intervention. Furthermore, army officials told the president they would not be used to repress Malawians urging multiparty politics.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Lindsay Carpenter, 2/8/2011