The Secretaries of the President and Cabinet in Kamuzu Banda’s era: the case of John Ngwiri


A trade unionist of the pedigree of the likes of Chakufwa Chihana and Joe Kachingwe who later became the top head of the Malawi’s Civil Service, John Ngwiri hailed from Ntcheu and was born in 1930. He was a well-educated Malawian in Public Administration and worked for different civil services in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. As an experienced civil service personnel, Ngwiri returned to Nyasaland in 1959 and worked in the Nyasaland Civil Service. During the fight for independence, when he was the spokesperson of the Nyasaland Trade Union was part of the native delegation which met Harold Macmillan the then UK’s Prime Minister when he visited Malawi in 1960 where the labour related disparities were exposed to him. Undoubtedly, the role of trade union in the fight for independence and economic development could not be understated; the divorce of the Trade Unions from the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) in 1964 led to the brutal murder of another trade unionist, Winston Chisiza. The independence of trade unionism was partly precipitated for the 1964 cabinet crisis. While other trade unionists fled the country for their lives, MCP cunningly strengthened its stronghold by assimilating some trade unionists into government as a means of stifling the Trade Union movement. John Ngwiri, due to his enviably expansive international work exposure, became the second Ambassador to the United Nations from 1965 to 1966. He replaced David Lubadiri who revolted against Kamuzu Banda after the Cabinet Crisis. By 1968, Ngwiri was by far an accomplished technocrat who, inter alia, became the Secretary for Foreign Affairs. During his tenure, he is associated with a soultouching story of the reconnection of a teacher and student. It was Ngwiri who drew and executed a reconnection plan, of course with support from Malawi’s High Commission in Pretoria and South Africa’s Foreign Ministry. In 1971, finally Kamuzu Banda, while on his State visit to South Africa, reconnected with his teacher, Edith Masinga who taught him in the 1920’s before he moved to the USA.


1 Political history correspondent with Lost History Foundation Ascendancy to the Secretary to the President and Cabinet Following his incredible and astronomical excellence in public policy and administration, it did not take long for Kamuzu to appoint John Ngwiri to the office of the head of the civil service. He became the second Secretary to the President and Cabinet in 1975 replacing George Jaffu who served in the same position from 1973. Jaffu, who passed last year, was unceremoniously fired for allegedly going to the office drunken. It was undoubtedly a huge task for Ngwiri considering that he was replacing an equally competent civil servant groomed by the architect of civil service, Bryan Roberts, QC. His predecessor was highly regarded by the President that “his civil service is well managed by his boy Jaffu.” Right away, Ngwiri championed the entire civil service machinery in translating the national development agenda heralded by Kamuzu Banda into a visible action. Among other huge projects, he oversaw the development of Lilongwe through the Capital City Development Corporation which then became the Capital City. Being an exposed capitalist, he also brokered trade and development deals between Malawi and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), South Africa and the Portuguese governments.

Conspiracy to the Mwanza

murder During one party rule, ministers apparently lacked political power and did not stay long in one post. In contrast, senior civil servants wielded substantial executive power under the President's watchful eye. The Secretary to the President and Cabinet was privy to the government's innermost workings and helped to control the access of politicians to President Banda. In a dramatic James Bond style, in 1983, the Speaker of the National Assembly Nelson Khonje received the Public Accounts Committee Report which allegedly exposed massive financial mismanagement in the government departments and irresponsible indebtedness in the statutory corporations in the Banda’s civil service. These events posit a distinct contrast from the widely held view post-multiparty, that the much-coveted Banda’s era was absolutely corrupt-free. When the Public Accounts Committee chairperson inquired of the President about the report, he categorically pushed back to the National Assembly to critically investigate the matter as it was squarely Ngwiri’s responsibility as he was the head of the civil service. Apparently, Ngwiri is said to have garnered power because of his position and vehemently resisted that report should be scrutinized by the parliament. Worse still, he refused to appear before Public Accounts Committee to explain the audit issues in the Auditor’s General Report. While in the heat of the pending debacle, by coincidence, President Banda suspended the cabinet ahead of the parliamentary elections which took place later in the year. Going by the 1995 court proceedings over the famous Mwanza Saga where the accused (Kamuzu Banda, John Tembo, Cecilia Kadzamira and others) were “unconditionally” acquitted, one would appreciate how the civil service was “captured” by the politicians while they postured themselves for control of political power after Kamuzu Banda. One could also recognize how civil servants were used and dumbed after the criminal enterprise of eliminating those who advocated for the Auditor’s Report to be debated in the parliament. In the defense and prosecution testimonies, there was much more evidence directly linking Ngwiri, who was then dead, to the murders. His behaviour at the time and the circumstantial evidence linked Ngwiri much precisely to the murder as argued by political historians such as van Donge in his African Affairs Journal article: The Mwanza Trial as a Search for a Usable Malawian Political Past.

His end of tour of duty and life

John Ngwiri was fired as the Head of Civil Service in 1985 -- two years after the murder of four MCP politicians (Dick Matenje, Aaron Gadama, Twaibu Sangala and David Chiwanga) in Mwanza – the government concluded that it was a car accident. Intriguingly, John Ngwiri lived a normal life after the prestigious tour of duty in the civil service– no imprisonment or whatever. However, the events which led to his death leaves much to be desired as he mysteriously died on 10th October 1992 – just barely a week before Kamuzu Banda announced for the National Referendum, succumbing to the international pressure to introduce multiparty politics.