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The area of Africa now known as Malawi had a very small population of hunter gatherers before waves of Bantus began emigrating from the north around the 10th century. Although most of the Bantus continued south, some remained permanently and founded tribes based on common ancestry. By 1500 AD, the tribes had established a kingdom that reached from north of what is now Nkhotakota to the Zambezi River and from Lake Malawi to the Luangwa River in what is now Zambia.

Soon after 1600, with the area mostly united under one native ruler, native tribesmen began encountering, trading with and making alliances with Portuguese traders and members of the military. By 1700, however, the empire had broken up into areas controlled by many individual tribes, which was noted by the Portuguese in their information gathering.

David Livingstone reached Lake Malawi (then Lake Nyasa) in 1859, and Malawi was originally known as Nyasaland under the rule of the British. In a prime example of what is sometimes called the "Thin White Line" of colonial authority in Africa, the colonial government of Nyasaland was formed in 1891. The administrators were given a budget of £10,000 per year, which was enough to employ ten European civilians, two military officers, seventy Punjab Sikhs, and eighty-five Zanzibar porters. These few employees were then expected to administer and police a territory of around 94,000 square kilometers with between one and two million people.

In 1944, the Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) was formed by the Africans of Nyasaland to promote local interests to the British government. In 1953, Britain linked Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia in what was known as the Central African Federation (CAF), for mainly political reasons. The linking provoked opposition from African nationalists, and the NAC gained popular support. An influential opponent of the CAF was Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, a European-trained doctor working in Ghana who was persuaded to return to Nyasaland in 1958 to assist the nationalist cause. Banda was elected president of the NAC and worked to mobilize nationalist sentiment before being jailed by colonial authorities in 1959. He was released in 1960 and asked to help draft a new constitution for Nyasaland, with a clause granting Africans the majority in the colony's Legislative Counsel.

In 1961, Banda's Malawi Congress Party (MCP) gained the majority in the Legislative Council elections and Banda became Prime Minister in 1963. The Federation was dissolved in 1963, and on 6 July 1964, Nyasaland became independent from British rule and renamed itself Malawi. Under a new constitution, Malawi became a single-party state under MCP rule in 1966, and in 1970 Banda declared himself president-for-life. For almost 30 years, Banda ruled firmly, suppressing opposition to his party and ensuring that he had no personal opposition.

Despite his political severity, however, Malawi's economy while Banda was president was often cited as an example of how a poor, landlocked, heavily populated, mineral-poor country could achieve progress in both agriculture and industrial development. While in office, and using his control of the country, Banda constructed a business empire that eventually produced one-third of the country's GDP and employed 10% of the wage-earning workforce.

Under pressure for increased political freedom, Banda agreed to a referendum in 1993, where the populace voted for a multi-party democracy. In late 1993 a presidential council was formed, the life presidency was abolished and a new constitution was put into place, effectively ending the MCP's rule. In 1994 the first multi-party elections were held in Malawi, and Bakili Muluzi became president. Muluzi remained president until 2004, when Dr. Bingu wa Mutharika was elected. Although the political environment is described as "challenging", as of 2009, the multi-party system still exists in Malawi. Multiparty parliamentary and presidential elections were held for the fourth time in Malawi in May 2009, and President Bingu wa Mutharika was successfully re-elected, despite charges of election fraud from his rival.

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