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.
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.
“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).
According to Peter Youens (in Baker 2001, p. 200), Orton Chirwa was ‘never really a wholehearted rebel, he was a great fence-sitter’.
“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.”