Malawi has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years; its earliest peoples were nomadic hunter-gatherers. By the 13th century AD , Bantu-speaking migrants had entered the region. The Chewa peoples had become dominant by the early 16th century; their clans were consolidated under the leadership of a hereditary ruler called the karonga. Before the coming of the Europeans in the second half of the 19th century, Malawi was an important area of operations for Arab slave traders. The incursions of slaving took a heavy toll on the inhabitants, although the Chewa state never came under direct Arab rule. One of the major stated objectives of British intervention in the territory was to stamp out the slave trade.
The first European to explore the area extensively was David Livingstone, whose reports in the 1850s and 1860s were instrumental in the establishment of a series of mission stations in
Nyasaland (as Malawi was then known) during the 1870s. In 1878, the African Lakes Company was formed by Scottish businessmen to supply the missions and provide a "legitimate" alternative to the slave trade. As the company extended its operations, it came into conflict with Yao tribesmen and Arab outposts toward the northern end of Lake Niassa. Fighting ensued in 1887–89, and pacification was completed only some years after the British government had annexed the whole of the territory in 1891. To Sir Harry Johnston, the first commissioner of the protectorate, fell the task of wiping out the remaining autonomous slave-trading groups. These antislavery operations were assisted by gunboats of the Royal Navy.
Nyasaland attracted a small group of European planters in the first decades of the 20th century. This group settled mainly in the Shire Highlands, and its numbers were never large. The territory was viewed by the imperial government as a tropical dependency, rather than as an area fit for widespread white settlement; many of the frictions that marred race relations in the Rhodesias were therefore minimized in Nyasaland. Missionaries and colonial civil servants consistently outnumbered planters in the European community, and lands occupied by European estates accounted for only a small part of the total land area.
Between World Wars I and II, the policy of the imperial government was built around the concept of "indirect rule"— that is, increasing the political responsibility of the African peoples by building on the foundations of their indigenous political institutions. Although this policy was not implemented at a rapid pace, it was generally assumed that Nyasaland would ultimately become an independent African-led state. In 1953, however, Nyasaland was joined with the two Rhodesias— Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)—in the Central African Federation. The Africans' reaction to this political arrangement was hostile. Disturbances sparked by opposition to the federation in 1959 led to the declaration of a state of emergency, and some Africans, including Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, were detained.
The African political leaders imprisoned in Southern Rhodesia were released in April 1960, and they gathered African support for the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). The MCP increased the campaign against federation rule and in the August 1961 elections polled more than 90% of the vote, winning all of the 20 lower-roll seats and two of eight upper-roll places. An era of "responsible" government then began, with the MCP obtaining five, and eventually seven, of the 10 available Executive Council positions. At a constitutional conference held in London in November 1962, it was agreed that Nyasaland should become fully self-governing early in 1963, and that Banda, who headed the MCP, should become prime minister. On 19 December 1962, the British government announced acceptance "in principle" of the right of Nyasaland to secede from the federation.
In February 1963, as scheduled, Nyasaland became a self-governing republic. In July, at a conference held at Victoria Falls, it was decided that the Central African Federation would break up by the end of the year. In October, Banda visited the UK and successfully negotiated full independence, effective in mid-1964 after a general election based on universal adult suffrage. Accordingly, on 6 July 1964, Nyasaland became a fully independent Commonwealth country and adopted the name Malawi. On 6 July 1966, Malawi became a republic, and Banda assumed the presidency. After the constitution was amended in November 1970, Banda became president for life.
During the first decade of Banda's presidency, Malawi's relations with its black-ruled neighbors were sometimes stormy. At the opening session of the MCP convention in September 1968, President Banda made a claim to extensive territories outside the present boundaries of Malawi. The claim covered the whole of Lake Niassa and parts of Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zambia.
The Tanzanian government asserted that President Banda could make territorial claims only because he had the support of South Africa, Rhodesia (which at that time had a white minority government), and Portugal (which then still ruled Mozambique). In fact, in 1967, Malawi had become the first black African country to establish diplomatic relations with white-ruled South Africa; in August 1971, moreover, Banda became the first black African head of state to be officially received in South Africa, which supplied arms and development funds to Malawi.
The Banda government also faced some internal opposition. In October 1967, the Malawi government announced that a group of rebels, numbering about 25, wearing police uniforms and posing as insurgents from Mozambique, had entered Malawi with the intention of killing President Banda and his ministers. Eventually, eight of the rebels were convicted of treason and sentenced to death; five others, including Ledson Chidenge, a member of the National Assembly, were sentenced to death for the murder of a former official of the MCP.
The aging Banda continued to rule Malawi with an iron hand through the 1970s and into the late 1980s. Several thousand people were imprisoned for political offenses at one time or another during his rule. One of these was former Justice Minister Orton Chirwa, leader of an opposition group in exile, who in May 1983 was sentenced to death after having reportedly been abducted from a town across the Zambian border in late 1981. Chirwa's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1984. He died in prison in October 1992. The leader of another dissident group, Attati Mpakati, was assassinated in Harare, Zimbabwe, in March 1983. Three government ministers and a member of parliament—two of them key leaders of the MCP, with one of them, party secretary-general Dick Matenje, regarded as a possible successor to Banda—died in the middle of May 1983 in a mysterious car accident.
A serious problem in the 1980s concerned the activities of the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR), which, in its efforts (backed by South Africa) to bring down the government in Maputo, seriously disrupted Malawi's railway links with Mozambique ports. As a result, an increasing share of Malawi's trade had to be routed by road through Zambia and South Africa at great expense. In 1987, Malawi allowed Mozambican troops to patrol areas along their common border and sent several hundred troops into northeast Mozambique to help guard the railway leading to the port of Nacala. Other critical problems for Malawi, particularly during the late 1980s and the early 1990s were the nation's growing debt burden, severe drought, and the nearly one million refugees from Mozambique, most of whom have now returned to Mozambique.
In 1992, Banda's grip began to weaken. In March, Malawi's eight Roman Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter protesting detention without trial and harsh treatment of political prisoners. University students demonstrated. Wildcat strikes and rioting in Blantyre and Lilongwe followed the arrest of opposition trade unionist, Chakufwa Chihana in May. Nearly 40 were killed by police gunfire in the first significant anti-government demonstrations since 1964. Chihana was released on bail in September and he formed a new group, the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD), that campaigned for multi-party elections. In December, Chihana was sentenced to two years for sedition.
Pressure mounted (including threats by aid donors abroad to suspend assistance), and in October Banda agreed to hold a referendum early in 1993 on whether Malawi should remain a one-party state. In the referendum, on 14 June 1993, 63% of those voting favored adopting multi-party democracy. Two opposition groups, AFORD and the United Democratic Front (UDF), both led by former MCP officials, held a massive rally in January 1993. Meanwhile, three opposition groups in exile merged to form the United Front for Multiparty Democracy, which then merged with the UDF inside Malawi. Chihana was released two days before the referendum.
In July and November 1993, parliament passed bills eliminating from the constitution single-party clauses (such as Hastings Kamuzu Banda's life presidency), appending a bill of rights, establishing a multi-party electoral law, and repealing detention without trial provisions of the Public Security Act. Dialogue among various major parties resulted in the establishment of a National Consultative Council and a National Executive Committee, with representatives from all registered parties, to oversee changes in the constitution, laws, and election rules and procedures. In December 1993, security forces disarmed Banda's paramilitary MCP Young Pioneers.
On 16 May 1994 the National Assembly adopted a provisional constitution, and the country held its first multiparty elections the following day. Bakili Muluzi of the UDF, a former cabinet minister, defeated Banda (MCP), Chihana (AFORD), and Kamlepo Kalua (Malawi Democratic Party). Of the 177 parliamentary seats contested, the UDF took 84, the MCP took 55, and AFORD 36. Muluzi immediately ordered the release of political prisoners and closed the most notorious jails. The new constitution took effect on 18 May 1995.
Malawi's second multi-party elections were held on 15 June 1999. The balloting showed a distinct regional cast to party constituency. Leading the United Democratic Front (UDF), Muluzi emerged the winner with 51.4% of votes in the presidential elections, followed by the MCP candidate, Gwanda Chakuamba with 44.3%. Muluzi's UDF won 94 of 193 parliamentary seats, four short of a simple majority. Chakuamba's MCP took 63 seats, and its electoral ally, the Alliance for Democracy (AFORD) won 31; four seats went to independents. The results confirmed the regional voting trend set in 1994, with the UDF winning the densely populated south, the MCP strong in the central region and all of AFORD's seats coming from the rugged north.
Although international observers declared the contest free and fair, opponents alleged that the UDF had rigged the elections, and refused to recognize the outcome. Attempts to seek legal redress were rebuffed, leading to riots and the razing of ten mosques in the north. At least two people were killed. Muluzi was inaugurated in Blantyre on 21 June 1999.
In July 2002, the National Assembly rejected proposals to amend the constitution to allow Muluzi to run for a third term in 2004. The proposals, resubmitted in February 2003, were quickly withdrawn under protests from opposition groups, civil society, and the diplomatic community. In all, three people were killed in the 2002 protests. Muluzi laid to rest speculation over his political intentions when he announced in April 2003 that the UDF National Executive Committee had endorsed a 68-year-old economist, Bingu wa Mutharika, as its presidential candidate for 2004. Mutharika, who hails from Thyolo District 40 km (25 mi) southeast of Blantyre, was deputy governor of the Reserve Bank of Malawi before being appointed minister in the newly created Department of Economics and Planning.
Severe food shortages in 2002 affected some 3.2 million people. The shortages exacerbated living conditions for more than 65% of the population considered "poor," and for some 15% of the adult population infected with HIV/AIDS. Widows of AIDS victims were increasingly subjected to property grabbing by relatives.
In June 2003, overriding a court order, the government deported five men accused of al-Qaeda connections. Muslim protests in the central district of Kasungu were disbursed by police using rubber bullets and tear gas. In the town of Mangochi in the south, Muslim demonstrators looted seven churches and the offices of Save the Children USA. About 50 Muslims stormed the police station where the detainees were being held, but were repelled by the police. Two of the five men headed local charities, while a third was a teacher at a Muslim school. Muluzi, himself a Muslim, declared that religious intolerance would not be allowed.