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Hastings Kamuzu Banda was the leader of Malawi and its predecessor state, Nyasaland, from 1961 to 1994.

Associated Press

With his Homburg hats, his three-piece English-style suits, and his lion-tail fly whisk, Hastings Kamuzu Banda was one of the oddest dictators in African history.

He banned women from wearing trousers or mini-skirts. He prohibited kissing in public. He ordered haircuts for long-haired tourists. He censored the mail, jailed his opponents, declared himself President-for-Life and ruled Malawi for three decades until the age of 96, when his countrymen finally wearied of his totalitarian reign.

For years, his grave was neglected and overgrown with weeds. But now, 12 years after his death, a new personality cult is forming around the once-feared autocrat, whose real name was Kamuzu Banda but who named himself Hastings after a Scottish missionary he admired.

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After ousting him in 1994, Malawi swiftly abolished the annual Kamuzu Day holiday with its mandatory celebration of the dictator's birthday. Yet last year the decision was reversed. In a gesture of reverence for the former ruler, the national holiday was revived.

A grandiose mausoleum has been erected to glorify his remains. The main airport and biggest stadium have been named after him. A museum is planned at one of the six gaudy palaces he built. And last week thousands of people gathered in the capital, Lilongwe, to witness the unveiling of a new bronze monument of Dr. Banda, complete with a replica of his fly-whisk, the symbol of power that he constantly swished in public.

The bronze statue cost a reported $120,000 - a major expense for taxpayers in a country that remains one of the poorest in the world. But few are questioning the cost. Instead, the country's media are filled with praise for the deceased dictator, whose motto was: "Unity, Loyalty, Obedience and Discipline."

With help from Chinese donors, Malawi is planning to build a massive Hastings Banda Information Centre, including a library, a museum and an auditorium where his speeches will be constantly broadcast.

Malawi's two biggest newspapers ran 16-page supplements on Dr. Banda on Kamuzu Day last week, heaping praise on the man who often described Malawi's people as his "children."

They even exalted him for "high aesthetic taste" in his clothes and his buildings. With rhetoric reaching almost North Korean levels, the Daily Times lauded the "infiniteness" of Dr. Banda's artistic standards.

The cult of Hastings Banda says something universal about the power of nostalgia, and how it can wash away the memory of a tyrant's sins. Just as millions of Russians still worship Stalin and millions of Chinese continue to adore Mao, millions of Malawians yearn for their own national hero.

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Dr. Banda is certainly their most famous personality: an eccentric medical doctor who called himself Ngwazi ("the conqueror") and founded an Eton-style academy to teach Latin and Greek to his people. He is seen as the founder of Malawi because he was its ruler when it gained independence from Britain in 1964. He even coined the country's name. Yet under his rule, thousands of innocent people were jailed, exiled or killed.

At the new Hastings Banda monument recently, a street vendor was doing a booming business in Banda postcards and framed portraits, selling them for up to $20 each. "He was a great man," said Taylor Mthawira, a government accountant who was buying a portrait of Dr. Banda.

"He built hospitals, schools, universities - it's all because of him. The roads you travel, the development that you see in Malawi today - it's all because of this man."

Billy Juma, a university student from southern Malawi, was gazing quietly at the monument. "I just wanted to see it," he said. "He was a hero."

At the Banda mausoleum, meanwhile, a caretaker proudly told visitors that the tomb was funded entirely by Malawian taxpayers at a cost of $750,000.

"Yes, he was a dictator," the caretaker said. "But it was an era of dictators. To err is human."

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The caretaker offered a convoluted explanation to defend Dr. Banda from accusations that he had people killed. "Most of the atrocities in that time were actually done by people around him," he told a group of tourists. "When he was angry, he would say, 'I don't like this person, remove him.' People would misinterpret it and torture the person and jail him."

Dr. Banda's long-time consort, Cecilia Kadzamira (known as his "official hostess"), is still a frequent visitor to the tomb, praying and laying flowers at the place where his body lies. (The Simon and Garfunkel song, Cecilia , was banned from Malawi's radio airwaves in the Banda era for fear that it might offend her.) In the campaign for yesterday's national election, Malawi's political parties are competing to claim the legacy of Hastings Banda. "Each party is trying to get closer to the name that has suddenly become associated with high standards," commented a writer in The Nation, a daily newspaper.

A leading presidential candidate, John Tembo, was one of Dr. Banda's closest aides, a fact he constantly mentions on the campaign trail. The incumbent President, Bingu wa Mutharika, built the Banda monument and mausoleum to forge his own link to the autocrat.

Even those who suffered under Dr. Banda's rule are willing to forgive him. Martin, a 50-year-old farmer in the Zomba district, remembers being expelled from school because he failed to purchase a membership card in Dr. Banda's ruling party. He had to beg his father to buy him one so he could return to school. He remembers how people were afraid to express any political opinions in the Banda decades.

Yet he still considers Dr. Banda a national hero. "He himself was very good, even if his followers were bad."

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