History Of Malawi

REMEMBERING ORTON CHIRWA

Orton Chirwa arriving at London Airport on 9th December 1964.

Orton Edgar Ching’oli Chirwa, Malawi’s first black barrister was born on 30th January 1919. He was called to the bar of London in 1958 and became Malawi’s minister of Justice and Attorney General in 1964. After cabinet crisis of 1964, he fled to Tanzania where he worked as an advocate and law lecturer till 1981. He died on 20th October 1992 at Zomba prison while serving a death sentence later commuted to life in prison.

It is said that on Christmas Eve 1981, Orton, Vera and their son Fumbani were visiting Zambia when they were abducted by Malawian security officials. What exactly happened that night remains a mystery. Perhaps they were tricked into going to the border area to be abducted.

Two years later, Orton and Vera were put on trial for treason. Malawi’s legal system had changed since he was Attorney General. The Chirwas were tried before a ‘traditional’ court, with judges directly answerable to Banda. There was no defence counsel and they were not allowed to call witnesses. The procedural irregularities were bizarre: thus the police officer in charge of the investigation doubled as an ‘independent’ handwriting expert.They were found guilty and sentenced to death. In 1984, after many appeals from governments and colleagues from their student days in London, Dr. Banda commuted their sentences to life imprisonment.

Life imprisonment proved to be a further sentence of death. The Chirwas were denied contact with each other and the outside world. In 1991, Orton tried to smuggle letters out to Tanzania. They were intercepted and he was punished with two days’ squatting in handcuffs and leg-irons, without lavatory facilities.

It was a small mercy that Orton Chirwa was allowed final meeting with his wife Vera Chirwa just a month before his death. The two were held in solitary confinement in separate wings of the Zomba prison. They had been imprisoned for nearly 11 years.
That meeting was their first in 8 years and only took place following a visit by a delegation of British lawyers who reported afterwards that Orton Chirwa was virtually deaf and blind with untreated cataract.
Another sad story is told about Orton Chirwa who was the founding President of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) when it was formed in September 1959. Upon Dr. Banda’s release from Gweru Prison, Orton Chirwa handed over the presidency of the party to Dr Banda on 5 April 1960. The ceremony took place at Orton Chirwa’s residence in Limbe.
Orton Chirwa’s speech during the ceremony clearly shows that he had worked very hard to establish a powerful political party that the colonial government had to reckon with. He commented that:
“Dr Kamuzu Banda is taking over a colossal organization, well disciplined and determined. There are about 300,000 paid up members. We have a Land Rover, an electric duplicator, a large staff and a bank balance of over 2,000 pounds” (Malawi News, 9 April 1960).
Orton Chirwa was one of the young nationalist leaders who in 1958 took the fateful decision to invite Dr. Banda then living in Ghana to return to Nyasaland to lead the struggle. Orton Chirwa and colleagues felt that the experience and stature of an old man-Dr Banda was already about 60 would impress the African constituency.

According to Peter Youens (in Baker 2001, p. 200), Orton Chirwa was ‘never really a wholehearted rebel, he was a great fence-sitter’.
Other analysts have argued that Orton Chirwa could easily have reunited with Dr Banda in the wake of cabinet crisis of 1964, but events beyond his control made this unlikely (Pike 1968, Williams 1978, Ross 1997).
John Lwanda (1993, p. 238) aptly summarises the unexpected end of the one-time chief supporter of Dr. Banda and MCP architect by stating:

“It was ironic that the man who founded the party and then voluntarily handed over the leadership to Dr Banda, and the man who would have reunited with Banda in the cause of national unity after the cabinet crisis was in the end the man who suffered the most at his ex cabinet colleague’s hand.”
In later years, Dr. Banda would boast about how he had single-handedly smashed the ‘stupid’ Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Orton Chirwa and others of his generation were obliterated from the Malawi’s history in the wake of cabinet crisis of 1964.

 

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