HIDING AND DESTRUCTION OF PUBLIC RECORDS
At the Eve of Independence in 1964.
Following the departure of the last and only Governor-General, Sir Glyn Jones on 5th July 1966, records from the Secretary to the Governor-General were transferred to the National Archives of Malawi on 9th July 1966. The Government Archivist (John Drew) at the time noted that:
Many more files (such as Executive Council Minutes, correspondence concerning Dr. Banda, etc.) were sent to England, in spite of representations by myself to the Governor-General‘s Secretary, as it was felt that their contents were of an embarrassing nature and should not be seen by the Malawi Government. However, at a later date (4/12/1967) another, nearly complete set of Executive Council Minutes from 1919 onwards turned up in State House and was presented to the Archives.”
However, correspondence concerning Dr. Banda and others were not and have not been returned. If such records had been returned, it would interest researchers to learn about the Colonial rulers‘ views of Dr. Banda and other nationalist leaders during the agitation for independence.
While researching for his book in the National Archives of Malawi and National Archives of Zambia, Rotberg (1965) noted that whereas many categories of records from the Secretariat and other offices had been brought into the Archives for administrative and security reasons, the post-World War II sensitive files, a large proportion of the more important secret and confidential files, were not deposited in the Archives and had unfortunately been lost.
During the transfer of power, indications are that the Secretariat instructed all District Commissioners to destroy all sensitive records (mostly generated by the Police Special Branch), that the Secretariat would not have wanted the Malawi Government to see. The following testimony from one British District Commissioner during the transition period stationed at Port Herald (now Nsanje District) indicates that District Commissioners received instructions from the Secretariat to burn all sensitive records:
“We received instructions from the Secretariat in Zomba that we should destroy all the sensitive files to avoid the new government seeing them. You should have seen the bonfire behind the DC‘s office at the Boma – the files were up in flames. I was personally there, the Police was there and other people gathered to see what was happening.”
It would appear from this testimony that either the District Commissioners generated a large volume of political records, which caused a remarkable bonfire when set ablaze, or other records that the District Commissioners felt needed to be destroyed, were also set on fire.
Whatever the case, the destruction of district records during the transfer of power created a permanent gap in the country‘s documentary sources for understanding Malawi‘s pre-independence history.
It is likely that many people who played some part in the struggle for independence or who were thought to be informers of the Colonial Administration in the various districts, will remain forgotten by history since the records that identified them perished in fires at the DC‘s offices throughout the country.
Soon after June 1993 Referendum
In the June 1993 national referendum, 63 per cent of voters had indicated that they wanted a multiparty system of government and the general elections were scheduled to take place on 19th May 1994.
Between June and December 1993, it had become apparent that the Malawi Congress Party would be voted out of power.
Since the Government had committed a number of atrocities and indulged in malpractices during its 30-year rule, in order to conceal any documentary evidence against the Government, Kachala (2003) says that the government decided to consign to hell any information that was deemed politically sensitive.
To this effect, the government ordered heads of departments to undertake wholesale destruction of classified documents in their departments from the month of January 1994. This order was also extended to the Malawi Police.
The deliberate destruction of public records was a very unfortunate incident in that it left a serious gap that will never be filled was created in the nation‘s documentary heritage.
From the perspective of the regime, however, this unfortunate incident saved the ruling elite from prosecution after losing power. When a new government came into power after the May 1994 general elections, many serious cases were levelled against the past rulers and senior public servants.
However, since the public records had earlier been purged of any evidence of wrong doing by the ruling elite and some senior public servants, it was difficult to commence criminal litigation against those concerned because of lack of evidence.
One prominent criminal case that was brought up before the court of law, in which the President, his closest Minister, the Inspector-General of Police and other police officers were accused of murdering three cabinet ministers and a Member of Parliament in an alleged car accident in 1983, was later dismissed and all the accused persons were released because of a lack of evidence.
Source: Lihoma, Paul (2012). PhD thesis: ‘The Impact of Administrative Change on Record Keeping in Malawi’ submitted to the University of Glasgow.