It was Banda himself who chose the name “Malawi” for the former Nyasaland; he had seen it on an old French map as the name of a “Lake Maravi” in the land of the Bororos, and liked the sound and appearance of the word as “Malawi”. On 6 July 1964, exactly six years after Banda’s return to the country, Nyasaland became the independent Commonwealth of Malawi.
Barely a month after independence, Malawi suffered the Cabinet Crisis of 1964. Banda had already been accused of autocratic tendencies. Several of Banda’s ministers presented him with proposals designed to limit his powers. Banda responded by dismissing four of the ministers. Other ministers resigned in sympathy. The dissidents fled the country.
Malawi adopted a new constitution on 6 July 1966, in which the country was declared a republic. Banda was elected the country’s first president for a five-year term; he was the only candidate. The new document granted Banda wide executive and legislative powers, and also formally made the MCP the only legal party. However, the country had already been a de facto one-party state since independence. In 1970, a congress of the MCP declared Banda its president for life. In 1971, the legislature declared Banda President for Life of Malawi as well.His official title was “His Excellency the Life President of the Republic of Malaŵi, Ngwazi Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda.” The title Ngwazi means “chief of chiefs” (more literally, “great lion”, or, some would say, “conqueror”) in Chicheŵa.
Banda was mostly viewed externally as a benign, albeit eccentric, leader, an image fostered by his English-style three-piece suits, matching handkerchiefs, walking stick and fly-whisk. He also spoke no Chichewa, and relied on a translator, John Msonthi. In June 1967, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Massachusetts with the encomium ” … pediatrician to his infant nation”.
Within Malawi, views on him ranged from cult-like devotion to fear. He portrayed himself as a caring headmaster to his people. However, this was a mask for a government that was rigidly authoritarian even by African standards of the time. Banda himself bluntly summed up his approach to ruling the country by saying, “Everything is my business. Everything. Anything I say is law…literally law.”
Although the constitution guaranteed civil rights and liberties, they meant almost nothing in practice, and Malawi was essentially a police state. Mail was opened and often edited. Telephones were tapped, and calls were known to be cut off if anyone said a critical word about the government. Overt opposition was not tolerated. Banda actively encouraged the people to report those who criticized him, even if they were relatives. Opponents were often arrested, exiled (like Kanyama Chiume) or died suspiciously (like Dick Matenje or Dr. Attati Mpakati).