Land Bill and traditional rulers


On the front page of the Weekend Nation dated October 8, 2016, there is a heading “Count us out of Land Bill”.

The news item says leaders of the Mzimba Heritage Association (MZHA) took a petition to the Chief Secretary, Lilongwe in which they plead that their King M’mbelwa V is the right person to deal with land problem within his territorial jurisdiction.

The paper approached two lawyers for opinion on the petition. They were Khumbo Soko, Spokesperson for Malawi Law Society and Danwood Chirwa, law expert based in Cape Town.


I have decided to respond to these learned lawyers through this page because I wrote on the land question in The Daily Times of October 12, 2016 to the effect that the Land Bill deserves further scrutiny.

It is a pity that the media tend to consult only lawyers when some complex issues like land ownership are involved. They ought to be consulting experts in other fields such as historians, economist, political scientist, and anthropologies, social to psychologists to get a balanced view of the problem in question.

Soko says Malawi being a unitary state its Parliament retains the competence to legislate for the whole country. That is correct. We of MZHA are not questioning the prerogative of Parliament. We are only saying the law that it makes should take into account local differences, traditions and histories.


A unitary state is not necessarily a totalitarian state. A totalitarian state recognises no other authority within its territorial boundary. All power is concentrated in the sovereign. But most unitary states are pluralistic. Sovereigns make concessions to other institutions. The United Kingdom is a unitary state, yet it has two legal systems the English Legal System and the Scottish Legal System. The House of Commons debates bills and passes laws that are applicable either to Scotland or England alone.

Wales which has been associated with England for more than 600 years has its own national language apart from English.

Malawians are made up of ethnic groups with different histories, customs and laws. To ignore this factor in making all laws would introduce regimentation and tyranny. Some people would feel they are being persecuted. For example, land problem in Rumphi and Mzimba may not be identical with those of Thyolo and Mulanje because of their different histories of settlement and colonisation.

What Chirwa told Weekend Nation is the main reason I have decided to respond at length. He says: (a) There has never been such a thing as a kingdom for many ethnic group separate from the state.

(b) Both the independent and democratic constitution did and do not recognise kingdom or stakeholder.

(c) The district of Mzimba is a legal creation that does not necessarily correspond to a particular kingdom.

( d ) Most of the chieftainship are a creation of the state and have been sustained by the state machinery laws and public fund. (e) Call by an ethnic group to exempt itself from particular laws should be treated with contempt it deserves

The clan Chirwa is very common in Mzimba but I doubt if Dan is from Mzimba because he seems not to know the history of Mzimba and the reverence that people there give to their makhosi, chiefs.

Mzimba, as a district name, was adopted by the colonies government in the 1930s to appease the people and chiefs of what is now Rumphi. Before that, the name was Mombera and it included what is now Rumphi District.

Before the name Mombera was adopted by the Nyasaland Government, there was a territory known as Ungoni or Ngoniland (compare with Uganda). It is not correct to say Mzimba was a creation of the state or government. It was there before the British created the Nyasaland Protectorate in 1891 and in creating the Nyasaland Protectorate, the British did not include facts which Chirwa does not seem to know.

How Ngoniland was created

M’mbelwa I, son of Zwangendaba, was installed sole chief of the Mazongendaba people during the period 1850 and 1855, at Ngo’ma in the Henga Valley. He moved southwards and settled near Mount Hora and then set about expanding his chiefdom appointing his half brothers Mthwalo, Mabilabo, Mpherembe and Mzukuzuku as divisional chiefs or Makhosana until he had created what was in essence a kingdom that stretched from Njakwa to Dwangwa and included the Tumbuka speaking parts of Kasungu and Lundazi.

The first white people to visit the chiefs of Mzimba were missionaries of the Free Church of Scotland. They arrived in 1879. In 1882, one of them called Walter Angus Elmslie arrived to seek permission to set up missions and schools in Ngoniland. Later, he wrote a book titled Among the Wild Ngoni in which he gave a vivid picture of the Ngoni or M’mbelwa kingdom. He said before arriving in Ngoniland, he had visited chiefs all the way from the south of what is now Malawi up to the north in what is now Nkhata Bay. He went on to say “ but it was when I came into Ngoniland that something like Burtons feelings were experienced. The great expense of country – hills and valleys and plains – dotted over with numberless villages built without regards to security from attack but located where the best gardens and pasturage were to be hand-made, one realises that here was a people powerful and free, whom to settle among and win for Christ was a work worth a man’s life. Elsewhere I saw the people huddled together in small dirty stockade villages and the people of one village ready to make war on the next village a few yards off.

“But here in Ngoniland, there wa s one royal residence, one ruler and he in touch with different parts of the tribe with all the people under him, the one chief Mombera.”

He went on to say the Ngoni were dominating a territory of 30,000 square miles west of Lake Malawi to what is now north-east Zambia. M’mbelwa I was at that time one of the four great potentates or kings of Central Africa. The others were King Lobengula of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe, the Litunga (King) Lewanika of Barotseland (Lozi) and Chitimukulu of the Bemba in Zambia.

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