Malawi is one of seven landlocked Commonwealth countries, all of which
are in Africa, though it does have a border with Lake Malawi of more
than 750 km.
Malawi has the lowest per capita income in the Commonwealth (2012), but
its economy has grown substantially since the early 2000s.
Joined Commonwealth: 1964
Population: 16,363,000 (2013)
GDP: 1.5% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: world ranking 174
Official language: English
Timezone: GMT plus 2hr
Currency: Malawi kwacha (MK)
Area: 118,484 sq km
Capital city: Lilongwe
Population density (per sq. km): 138
Malawi is a long, narrow south-east African country shaped by the
dramatic Rift Valley, with Lake Malawi a dominant feature. It is
bordered by Mozambique to the east, south and south-west, by Zambia to
the north and north-west, and by the United Republic of Tanzania to the
north and north-east.
There are three regions: the northern (capital Mzuzu), the central
(capital Lilongwe) and the southern (capital Blantyre).
There are 15,450 km of roads (45 per cent paved) and 797 km of railway.
Rehabilitation of the war-damaged railway line to the Mozambican port of
Nacala was completed in 1997. Plans were announced in 1999 for
private-sector management of Malawi Railways, leading to eventual
Lilongwe International Airport handles the bulk of domestic and
international traffic; the second international airport is Blantyre
Malawi is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of
States, African Union, Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa,
Non-Aligned Movement, Southern African Development Community, United
Nations and World Trade Organization.
Malawi’s deep Rift Valley trench is on average 80 km wide. Lake Malawi
occupies two-thirds of the Rift Valley floor. It feeds the Shire river,
which flows south to join the Zambezi. Plateaux rise west of the trench.
The northern region is mountainous, with the open Nyika Plateau,
escarpments, valleys and the forested slopes of Viphya Plateau. The
central region, the main agricultural area, is a plateau over 1,000
metres high. The southern region is low-lying apart from the 2,100
metres high Zomba Plateau and the 3,002 metres Mulanje Massif, the
highest mountain in south-central Africa.
The tropical climate is tempered by altitude and cooler on the high
plateaux. There are three seasons: a cool, dry season from mid-April to
August; a warm, dry season from September to November; and a rainy
season (receiving 90 per cent of precipitation) from December to April.
Most of the country is well watered, receiving 800–2,500 mm of rain,
with some areas in the high plateaux receiving 3,500 mm p.a.
The most significant environmental issues are deforestation; soil
degradation; and water pollution by agricultural run-off, sewage and
The varied climate encourages a range of vegetation. Zomba Plateau, the
country’s oldest forest reserve, has Mulanje cedar, cypress and Mexican
pine. There is dense tropical rainforest on the lower ranges of the
Mulanje Massif; higher up grow ericas, helichrysum, giant blue lobelias,
species of iris, staghorn lily and (unique to Malawi) Whyte’s sunflower.
Forest covers 34 per cent of the land area, having declined at 0.9 per
cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable land comprises 38 per cent and permanent
cropland one per cent of the total land area.
Animals include leopard, hyena, jackal, hyrax, porcupine, red duiker,
bushbuck, reedbuck, klipspringer, baboon, mongoose, vervet monkey,
serval, civet, genet, tree frog. More than 219 bird species have been
recorded, including the white-tailed crested fly catcher, fiscal shrike
and wailing cisticola, and 15 species are thought to be endangered
(2012). Birds of prey include the augur buzzard, the eagle owl and the
Malawi was once called Maravi, or ‘reflected light’ – perhaps a
reference to sunlight glittering on Lake Malawi. Archaeological
excavations have revealed evidence of early settlements around Lake
Malawi, dating back to the late Stone and Iron Ages.
The area is mentioned in early Arab writings and in Portuguese writings
of the 17th and 18th centuries. The pre-colonial Maravi Empire was a
loosely organised society covering an expanse of territory well beyond
present-day Malawi and encompassed first the Chewa and later the Tumbuka
ethnic groups. The Yao from the north and the Ngoni made successful
invasions during the 19th century. The Yao became involved in the
commercial slave trade, acting as agents for the coastal Arabs. David
Livingstone visited Lake Malawi (then called Lake Nyasa) in 1859 and was
followed in succeeding decades by British missionaries, traders and
planters. This was an unsettled period, with widespread slave raiding.
In 1891, Britain declared the country the British Protectorate of
Nyasaland. In 1953 the UK federated Nyasaland with Northern and Southern
Rhodesia (now Zambia and Zimbabwe). The Federation was vigorously
opposed and, in 1958, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned home from Ghana,
at the invitation of the Nyasaland African Congress, to lead the fight
against it. The government declared a state of emergency in 1959 and
arrested Banda and other members of Congress. Following his release in
1960, a series of constitutional conferences was held, as were
elections. Internal self-government was achieved in 1963, the Federation
was dissolved and Malawi attained independence and joined the
Commonwealth on 6 July 1964, with Banda as Prime Minister.
In 1966 Malawi became a republic, with Banda as President. A new
constitution gave the President, who was also commander- in-chief of the
armed forces, widespread powers. He held a number of ministerial
portfolios, including External Affairs, Agriculture, Justice and Works.
Malawi became a one-party state, with Malawi Congress Party (MCP) as the
The following decade saw widespread political unrest, much of it arising
from splits and rivalries. Pressure for democratic reform intensified at
the end of the 1980s. The one-party government held out for a period:
thousands of arrests were made in the first half of 1992, among those
arrested was trade union leader and multiparty democracy campaigner
Chakufwa Chihana. Strikes, student demonstrations and political riots
were suppressed by police, in the course of which at least 38 people
Western donors supported the campaign for multiparty democracy by
suspending non-humanitarian aid to Malawi in May 1992. The reformers
joined forces in a Public Affairs Committee (PAC) – an umbrella body of
religious and political groups calling for change. The Alliance for
Democracy (AFORD), chaired by Chihana, and the United Democratic Front (UDF),
chaired by Bakili Muluzi, were formed in September 1992 and joined the
PAC. The government then established the President’s Committee for
Dialogue and agreed to hold an internationally supervised national
referendum on the one-party system.
Over 78 per cent of the adult population voted in the referendum on 14
June 1993, and 63 per cent supported a multiparty system. The
constitution was accordingly amended. Banda also announced an amnesty
for all Malawians imprisoned or exiled for political activities. Laws
passed by the National Assembly in November 1993 committed Malawi to
human rights including freedom of expression. The Constitution
(Amendment) Act introduced a bill of rights, the title of life President
(which had been assumed by Banda in 1971) was dropped from the
constitution and a number of restrictive laws were repealed.
Presidential and parliamentary elections were held in May 1994. Bakili
Muluzi won the presidential election, obtaining about one- third more
votes than his nearest rival, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda. His party, the
UDF, obtained the largest number of seats in the parliamentary
elections, but not an overall majority. In September 1994, Muluzi
appointed ministers from AFORD and other smaller parties, giving the new
government a working majority.
In the elections of June 1999 Muluzi won the presidency with 52 per cent
of votes cast while Gwanda Chakuamba – the candidate of an alliance of
the MCP and AFORD – secured 45 per cent. In the National Assembly, the
UDF won 93 seats, the MCP 66 and AFORD 29, a result that gave the
opposition alliance a parliamentary majority. However, by August 1999,
with the support of four independents, Muluzi gained control of
parliament and his position was subsequently strengthened by a
succession of by-election victories.
Following a poor harvest in 2000/01, a combination of severe floods and
drought devastated food crops in 2001 and by 2002 the country faced food
shortages. Meanwhile, its strategic grain reserve of some 167,000 tonnes
had been sold off, and by mid- 2002 more than 500,000 people were
estimated by the World Food Programme to be in need of food aid,
increasing to a peak of 3.6 million people in February 2003, after which
the new harvest brought recovery to most parts of the country.
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