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Malawi supplies hungry African neighbors with its grain surplus

For the fourth year running, Malawi will be exporting corn to its neighbors. These sizable grain surpluses -- produced while famine is gripping large parts of Africa -- are widely viewed as almost miraculous. And it's not just a matter of two years of good rains.

An important factor is Hastings Kamuzu Banda, the country's didactic and authoritarian leader. Surrounded by countries in turmoil and itself beginning to experience growing popular discontent, Malawi under Dr. Banda has enjoyed political and economic stability since it gained independence from Britain in 1964.

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In 1983 Banda typically ignored advice from the International Monetary Fund and substantially raised the price farmers got for grain. As a result there was a surplus to export to Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique whose socialist leaders have in the past scorned Banda's blatantly capitalist policies.

The surplus can be directly traced to Banda's personalized style of rule -- a blend of iron-fisted discipline tempered by benevolent paternalism. Comparisons to a medieval fiefdom are reinforced by rituals such as the month-long inspection of the nation's crops that he conducted in February. Banda is prone to arrive in fields unannounced and, pointing to stray weeds, reprimand farmers for their laziness.

He has fostered good husbandry through efficient agricultural extension services, price incentives, and a regular supply of fertilizer. Last year saw record production of tobacco, tea, and sugar, which provide 90 percent of foreign exchange earnings. Nevertheless, economic problems exist. Political upheavals within the region have cut into export profits.

Rail links to the Mozambican ports of Beira and Nacala have been cut by guerrillas seeking to overthrow Mozambique's Marxist government. The alternative road routes cut through Zambia and Zimbabwe to the South African port of Durban in the past two years have doubled transport costs.

Despite Malawi's reputation for prosperity, it is considered one of the world's least developed countries with a per-capita gross domestic product of $210. Its only natural resources are its manpower and its land. It has a population density second only to Nigeria among black African coutries. And the average wage of $50 per month paid the 15 percent of the labor pool currently employed is low even by African standards.

Until recently Banda has glossed over inequities that keep most of Malawi at subsistence level while he lives sumptuously. Visitors to the presidential Sanjika Palace in Blantyre report being met at the entrance by bewigged and breeched courtiers reminiscent of the court of France's Louis 14th. Millions of dollars are being poured into a new residence outside the capital of Lilongwe.

Now simmering dissatisfaction is exacerbated by the prospect of a Malawi without Banda. His age is a closely guarded secret, but events in his youth that can be related to specific dates have led observers to calculate that he must be in his 80s. Although reportedly less forceful than he used to be, he is still spritely and energetic, addressing rallies with his customary half-hour, off-the-cuff exhortations to discipline and hard work. Banda's supremacy over Malawi's one-party state is entrenched in the Constitution, which states that no one else shall assume leadership in his lifetime. Suspected challengers are summarily jailed or detained. In May 1983 three Cabinet ministers and a member of parliament were killed when, according to the official version, their car plunged over a 100-foot embankment. Diplomatic sources say they were probably shot by the police.

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One of the men who died in the accident was Aaron Gadama, secretary-general of the Malawi Congress Party. Banda's failure to appoint a successor has left a critical vacuum in the political hierarchy.

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