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Kamuzu Banda, former Malawi dictator, dead at 99

November 26, 1997 GMT

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Former Malawi President Kamuzu Banda, an autocrat with a streak of brutality who led the former British colony to statehood, has died. He was believed to be 99.

Banda died of respiratory failure Tuesday night at the Garden City Clinic in Johannesburg, where he had been under intensive care for pneumonia, hospital spokeswoman Amelda Swartz said today.

Though his official birthday was given as May 14, 1906, long before birth records were kept in this former British colony of Nyasaland, Banda was believed to be in his late 90s. Swartz said he was 99.

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Banda, who underwent brain surgery in South Africa in 1993, was hospitalized in Malawi on Nov. 15, suffering from fever and pneumonia. He was transferred to the Johannesburg clinic two days later in a coma.

His longtime companion, Cecilia Kadzamira, and his personal physician from Malawi were at his bedside when he died, Swartz said.

Banda led Malawi to independence in 1964 and went on to head one of Africa’s most brutal and isolated dictatorships for three decades. He was ousted in 1994 in the country’s first democratic elections.

Malawi is a small impoverished land of 8 million people bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia.

``We have lost the founder of the nation,″ said John Chikago, the Malawi high commissioner in South Africa. ``We will miss him.″

Chikago said Banda’s body would be transported back to Malawi, perhaps as soon as today, for a state funeral.

A spokesman for President Bakili Muluzi, who defeated Banda in the 1994 election, said on state radio that Muluzi’s Cabinet would meet today to make plans for the funeral and a period of mourning.

The announcement showed that despite Banda’s oppressive rule, Muluzi intended to let Malawians pay last respects to the man who ruled their country for most of their lives.

South African President Nelson Mandela paid tribute to Banda, saying that despite a reputation as an uncaring dictator, he supported liberation movements in southern Africa and sent Mandela money ``without me asking for any support.″

``Notwithstanding his public image, he was a man who did many things people did not know about,″ Mandela said.

During Banda’s rule, thousands of political opponents were killed, tortured, jailed without trial or hounded into exile. He was known for peculiar dictates that banned long hair on men, short skirts on women and even the Simon and Garfunkel song ``Cecilia″ in deference to Kadzamira, one of the country’s most powerful figures who held the title of ``official hostess.″

Now in her 60s, Kadzamaira met Banda while working as a young nurse at a clinic Banda owned before independence. Though constant companions, they never married and Banda never admitted to having children.

The 1994 elections were held only after anti-government riots and an aid freeze by Western donors, who pressured Banda to abandon repressive policies as post-Cold War reforms swept across Africa.

As a prelude to the elections, Banda was forced to hold a nonbinding referendum in which Malawians voted overwhelmingly to end the country’s one-party system.

During an eight-month trial in 1995, Banda and Kadzamira, along with top aides, were cleared of the 1983 slayings of four dissident politicians. Because of his frail condition, Banda didn’t attend the trial.

Muluzi’s government said it charged Banda and his aides as a first step toward cleansing the nation’s bloody past.

Banda, known as the Ngwazi, chief of chiefs or conqueror in the local Chewa language, was always seen in public in an austere dark suit, black Homburg hat and waving a lion’s tail fly whisk.

The former elder in the Presbyterian Church of Scotland forbade the introduction of television, which he considered a corrupting influence, though he regularly watched foreign programs from satellite broadcasts.

For most of his quirky rule, men were not permitted to wear bell bottom trousers and women were not allowed to wear skirts above the knee or pants. The bans were extended to foreign tourists: Male visitors with long hair were denied entry unless they were shorn by airport barbers.

Throughout his presidency, Banda controlled extensive private business interests. He often hired foreigners to run his companies and also favored expatriate managers in key posts in state-owned enterprises, the national airline and the central bank.

Educated by Scottish missionaries, Banda practiced medicine in Scotland and later decorated his seven palaces at home with a mix of animal skins, tartans and Scottish baronial insignia.

He left his country as a young man after working as a hospital orderly. He walked 1,000 miles to South Africa to seek work in that country’s burgeoning gold mines and traveled on to the United States, where he attended school in Indiana and Illinois before graduating from the Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn., in 1937.

Working as a doctor in Britain before returning to southern Africa in 1958, Banda’s London practice became a meeting place for African intellectuals and independence leaders, including Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah.

Banda was given a hero’s welcome when he came home in 1958 to campaign for independence. He was jailed for inciting violence against British colonial authorities, but later was freed to negotiate for independence in London.

A few months after independence, he summarily jailed 400 opponents who he said were planning armed rebellion. Others fled into exile as he vowed to crush dissent.

He was a founder of the early pan-Africanist movement and the Organization of African Unity, but he stayed away from its meetings as his isolation grew. Under Banda, Malawi was the only independent African nation to maintain open, formal ties with apartheid-ruled South Africa and Israel.