The early history of Malawi is a bit vague, but we do know that the Maravi Kingdom was established on the shores of Lake Malawi by Bantu Chewa people sometime in the 15th Century. The Kingdom became an empire which spread to take in large chunks of modern day Mozambique and Zimbabwe before it broke up in the 18th Century. The name Malawi is probably derived from Maravi.
Meanwhile the Portuguese arrived in the 16th Century and started trading with the Maravi in ivory, slaves, iron and agricultural crops. By the 18th and early 19th Century the Maravi faced a variety of threats from various groups including those fleeing from King Shaka and his Zulu Kingdom in what was known as the mfecane (or scattering) and others fleeing famine in northern Mozambique.
The latter group were known as the Yao and were a fearsome people who warred with everyone and enslaved most of those they captured, selling them and ivory to Arab traders operating out of Zanzibar.
In 1859 it was the turn of the British to impact on the country in the form of David Livingstone. Missionaries followed in his footsteps and established missions all over the country. By 1883 a British Consul was accredited to the “Kings and Chiefs of Central Africa” and the British Central Africa Protectorate was established. It was largely the British missionaries who led to the abolition of the slave trade and created the first coffee plantations.
In 1907 the country was renamed Nyasaland and given its own legislative council whilst the British Commissioner was made a Governor. In the First World War Nyasaland fought on the side of the British against German East Africa (modern day Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania) in a little reported engagement which lasted from 1914 until 1917 and is estimated to have killed more than 300,000 civilians.
In the middle of the war with Germany in East Africa, in January 1915, a man named John Chilembwe led a rebellion against colonial rule but it was quickly put down, with Chilembwe and most of his followers being executed.
In the Second World War around 30,000 Malawians served with British forces, but after the war an increasingly well-educated and confident people wanted to rule themselves. In 1944 the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) was formed and spread across what is modern day Malawi and Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In 1953 the British joined Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi) and changed their name to the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
In 1956 Nyasaland had its first elections during which five Africans were elected to the new Legislative Council.
In July 1958, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda had returned to the country after a long absence abroad and assumed leadership of the NAC. In 1959 he was imprisoned for his political activities and across the country a state of emergency was declared as the independence movement grew. In 1960 Dr Banda was released to engage in a constitutional conference in London.
By 1961 the NAC had become the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and they won 22 of the 28 seats available in the general election that year and a year later the British agreed to give the country independence.
Hastings Banda became Prime Minister on 1st February 1963 but the British still had control of some institutions and independence only came on 6th July 1964. Banda turned out to have autocratic tendencies and soon the Cabinet was in disarray with Ministers leaving and several armed uprisings taking place.
Two years later, on 6th July 1966, a new constitution was introduced making Malawi a Republic and Banda the first President. The new constitution introduced a one party rule and Banda was to remain as President until 24th May 1994. Although he did much to improve infrastructure and education in the country and he proved to be a reliable ally of the West during the Cold War, Banda also presided over a regime which tortured and murdered its opponents.
By 1993 he was facing increased international pressure to stand down and a referendum on 14 June 1993 ended his one-party state and stripped the president of most of his powers. Although Banda stood for President in the 1994 democratic elections he lost to Bakili Muluzi of the United Democratic Front (UDF) which had been formed two years before.
In 1999 Muluzi stood again and won a narrow victory but his victory caused upset amongst the northern Christians (he is a Muslim) and the ensuing violence resulted in damage worth millions of dollars and the destruction of a large number of mosques.
In 2004 Bingu wa Mutharika, a Roman Catholic, became the third President of Malawi on the UDF ticket, but he fell out with Muluzi, who was still president of the party, in 2005 and established his own party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The DPP won 114 of the 193 seats in the Assembly of Malawi in 2009 and Bingu wa Mutharika was elected President for a second term with 65.98% of the vote. Mutharika’s Vice-Presidential running mate was Joyce Banda, but she soon fell out with the President and was dismissed as a Vice-President of the DPP. However, she could not be removed from the Vice-Presidency of the country and when Bingu wa Mutharika died suddenly of a heart attack, Joyce Banda became the new President, although not without some problems along the way.
Having fallen out with the DPP, Joyce Banda established her own party, the People’s Party (PP) in April 2012. In late 2013 a major corruption scandal erupted which became known as Cashgate and involved the siphoning off of large sums (some estimate as much as $100 million) of government money by a number of officials and politicians. Banda acted quickly in declaring an enquiry and in suspending her Cabinet, but undoubtedly the subsequent arrests of more than 70 people has had an impact on her 2014 presidential election campaign.
The President is elected to serve a five-year term and may serve a second term.
The unicameral National Assembly has 193 members elected by popular vote to serve five-year terms.
The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2016 places Malawi at joint 120th out of 176 countries with a CPI 2016 score of 31 (where 100 is least corrupt).