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Was John Chilembwe a democrat?

True democrats are defined by their constant approach to issues of public concern. Any real democrat is free-minded. He allows for equal participation of all people in any policy making. He does not build himself into a figurehead which becomes the ultimate source of fear, torture and begged for respect.

On the other hand, dictators are always hard. They leave a very small space for others to speak out their views. Freedom of speech is mostly attenuated and any pretender to the crown is given a bitter pill to swallow.

Impositions and endorsements are their usual business. They don’t consult or allow advice from others. They are just difficult people who live for themselves and do not take what the majority says and wants.

Most of us already know that the formalisation of democracy as a form of political governance began in Greece.

We also know that, the modern forms of democracy were first practised in America, Britain and France.

In Africa the wind of democracy began to blow very late, towards the end of the 20th century.

But even if democracy came late in Africa, there are leaders at the beginning of the 20th century people, who can be credited for being models of democracy, even if some of them never knew the basic lines of democracy as a system of government.

One of such leaders was the Rev. John Chilembwe. This man of God was no mere reverend but he was also a model democrat in the time that few African traditional leaders hardly practised democracy.

The story line of Chilembwe testifies to what a democrat he was.

The delegation to Mandala

In preparation for the violent uprising against the British colonial rule, Chilembwe delegated some of his men, among them, Grey Kufa, to Mandala in Blantyre to steal guns meant to increase the chances of winning the war with the white farmers.

The guns were to form the most important part of the preparations. Failure to steal the guns could make the battle against the white men a very unsuccessful one.

Chilembwe trusted his men. He would have gone with them to Mandala to ensure that they return with the most deadly weapon. But he chose to stay and do other things while his boys went the other way.

This delegation to Mandala could mean that Chilembwe had the mind of a democrat. And how many leaders in Africa take to trust their juniors in the most critical moments such as that in which Chilembwe was?

Involvement of local chiefs

On staging the battle against the British colonialism, Chilembwe was not alone. He had the local chiefs alongside him, who backed and drummed up support for his mission. The chiefs called on their men with spears, bows and arrows to help in chasing and sending the white man home.

Chief Gomani was among them. He did everything to support Chilembwe. He sent some of his men to help in the fight. By involving the local chiefs, Chilembwe suggested a democracy.

Chilembwe did not use the chiefs in scandalous political affairs as some of them seem to be used now. Most political leaders use the chiefs as weapons to reach out to the rural populations. By tradition, whatever a chief says is regarded an ultimate truth. But Chilembwe only used them for a good purpose.


Chilembwe preferred dialogue to the use of arms. In most countries, war is a sign of the failure of democracy. For several times, he attempted to engage the white settles in peaceful dialogue. Chilembwe only used guns under desperate circumstances to force the white farmers who chose no not lo listen to his petitions to give Africans fairer labour conditions.

Not power-hungry

It is not very clear whether Chilembwe had other intentions in the fighting of the white farmers in the colonial government, such as to become a national leader. But what we all suppose is that he was fighting a good cause for the natives to gain their freedom.

It is also not recorded in history that Chilembwe was at some point seen going around the villages canvassing among his people to put him to power after the war is won and the British colonialists are gone.

It could appear then that Chilembwe was not hungry for power. He only fought for a good cause to liberate his fellow Africans.

Chilembwe, only to guess, strongly believed that the natives were later to be given a choice of the leader they wanted. He did not license himself to become the automatic first black leader of Nyasaland for the fact that he championed the fight against the Thangata system.

Chilembwe was different from some African leaders who would always want to be national leaders after they successfully win any fight against the enemies of a nation.

This should mean, Malawians have all the good reasons to be mature in democratic politics as their hero, John Chilembwe, set the pace.

Malawi leaders have to follow Chilembwe’s footsteps.

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