An unofficial sample of Malawians shows some consider the first president of the country to be Africa?s most influential leader of the past 50 years. VOA English to Africa reporter Eldson Chagara spoke with Malawians about why the country?s first president is still revered.

Malawi is a country where many people were alleged to have been oppressed and tortured during the one man, and one-party rule of the late Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda. He  ruled the country for over 30 years, until 1994.

Banda was born near Kasungu in Malawi (then Nyasaland). His date of birth is unknown, because it took place at a time when British colonial authorities did not keep birth records in its former colony. He claimed to have been born on May 14, 1906 and this date is contained in some biographical guides. However, his death certificate states him to have been 99 years old and it was rumoured that he was actually 101.

Banda was known for his autocratic rule. But according to Mr. Nicholas Dausi, Malawi?s first ruler will always be remembered as one of Africa?s most influential leaders. Dausi is the Vice President of the Malawi Congress Party- the party that Kamuzu formed and ruled Malawi for 31 years. He says Banda was a rare moral ruler in Africa who wanted his people to observe what he called the four cornerstones; unity, loyalty, obedience, and discipline.

Much as some people in Malawi hated the Kamuzu Banda government for the torture he inflicted on his opponents, others say Kamuzu is remembered for his compassion, care and love for his people.

Ellard Manjawira is a lecturer of sociology and journalism with the University of Malawi.

?Kamuzu led the people of Malawi to independence from British colonial rule. During his rule there was stability in the country. There were no wars and the people were united the country was self sufficient in food so he was really a great leader for Malawi and Africa. He was a product of his time because from the early 1960?s almost in every country there was one party rule and under one party rule it was something like dictatorship. But it was during that time that he wanted to unite people so there was no way he would let the people to do things on their own he had to be strong and make people obey the rules of the day,? he said.

Banda was also an advocate of women?s rights unlike many other African rulers during his rule. He founded a women?s body called in vernacular Chitukuko Cha Amai m'Malawi (CCAM) to address the concerns, needs, rights and opportunities for women in Malawi. This institution motivated women to excel both in education and government and encouraged them to play more active roles in their community, church and family.

Social analyst Alfred Machado says much as others viewed him as a dictator, the late Kamuzu Banda was a leader with a mission who encouraged people to develop their own lives and build the nation. He says things changed for the worse after his death.

?There is no much zeal to work just because people have taken democracy as a break from the pressure they were having previously. They were work for fear but with the coming of democracy they say yeah let us now relax this is the time we have been looking for. I think we always want to b e pushed for us to work so it was dictatorship that was pushing us to work than nowadays,? he notes.

Many Malawians say Banda only promised what he would do and did nothing that he did not promise. During his rule, education standards, health facilities and agriculture were given paramount importance.

Alfred Machado says although unemployment was high during the Banda era, many people were able to grow their own crops and live a moderate life. By critics, including many observers outside the country,  Banda was often viewed externally as the head of a repressive police state where no dissent was tolerated. Opponents were either exiled or killed.

Journalist Mark Ndipita says Banda was influenced by an era in which one-man rule was commong ? and that he had no choice but to use his powers to the fullest. He says people should not compare Africa?s leadership under multiparty democracy and with that of the one party era.

?We have to understand that each and every leader has the style of ruling. What Kamuzu was trying to do was that he knew that for me to better rule these people I need to do this. Kamuzu did not want other people to attack him. If somebody attacks you, what do you expect? You expect somebody to hit back. So Kamuzu was hitting back at those people who were attacking him. If you kept quiet during Kamuzu era, you wouldn?t be attacked by anyone because you were quiet and everyone knew. So why dare attack Kamuzu saying Kamuzu was a bad person,? he questioned.

Banda became the first President of Malawi on July 6, 1966, when Malawi was declared a one-party republic. He then declared himself president for life in 1971.

A controversial leader for some, but respected by many who think Banda had the country?s best intentions in mind, even if he ruled with a heavy hand.

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