The first inhabitants of present-day Malawi were probably related to the San (Bushmen). Between the 1st and 4th cent. A.D., Bantu-speaking peoples migrated to present-day Malawi. A new wave of Bantu-speaking peoples arrived around the 14th cent., and they soon coalesced into the Maravi kingdom (late 15th–late 18th cent.), centered in the Shire River valley. In the 18th cent. the kingdom conquered portions of modern Zimbabwe and Mozambique. However, shortly thereafter it declined as a result of internal rivalries and incursions by the Yao, who sold their Malawi captives as slaves to Arab and Swahili merchants living on the Indian Ocean coast. In the 1840s the region was thrown into further turmoil by the arrival from S Africa of the warlike Ngoni.
In 1859, David Livingstone, the Scots explorer, visited Lake Nyasa and drew European attention to the effects of the slave trade there; in 1873 two Presbyterian missionary societies established bases in the region. Missionary activity, the threat of Portuguese annexation, and the influence of Cecil Rhodes led Great Britain to send a consul to the area in 1883 and to proclaim the Shire Highlands Protectorate in 1889. In 1891 the British Central African Protectorate (known from 1907 until 1964 as Nyasaland), which included most of present-day Malawi, was established. During the 1890s, British forces ended the slave trade in the protectorate. At the same time, Europeans established coffee-growing estates in the Shire region, worked by Africans. In 1915 a small-scale revolt against British rule was easily suppressed, but it was an inspiration to other Africans intent on ending foreign domination.
In 1944 the protectorate's first political movement, the moderate Nyasaland African Congress, was formed, and in 1949 the government admitted the first Africans to the legislative council. In 1953 the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (linking Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia, and Southern Rhodesia) was formed, over the strong opposition of Nyasaland's African population, who feared that the more aggressively white-oriented policies of Southern Rhodesia (see Zimbabwe) would eventually be applied to them.
In the mid-1950s the congress, headed by H. B. M. Chipembere and Kanyama Chiume, became more radical. In 1958, Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda became the leader of the movement, which was renamed the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) in 1959. Banda organized protests against British rule that led to the declaration of a state of emergency in 1959–60. The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was ended in 1963, and on July 6, 1964, Nyasaland became independent as Malawi.
Banda led the country in the era of independence, first as prime minister and, after Malawi became a republic in 1966, as president; he was made president for life in 1971. He quickly alienated other leaders by governing autocratically, by allowing Europeans to retain considerable influence within the country, and by refusing to oppose white-minority rule in South Africa. Banda crushed a revolt led by Chipembere in 1965 and one led by Yatuta Chisiza in 1967.
Arguing that the country's economic well-being depended on friendly relations with the white-run government in South Africa, Banda established diplomatic ties between Malawi and South Africa in 1967. In 1970, Prime Minister B. J. Vorster of South Africa visited Malawi, and in 1971 Banda became the first head of an independent black African nation to visit South Africa. This relationship drew heavy public criticism. Nonetheless, Malawi enjoyed considerable economic prosperity in the 1970s, attributable in large part to foreign investment.
Throughout the decade, Malawi became a refuge for antigovernment rebels from neighboring Mozambique, causing tension between the two nations, as did the influx (in the late 1980s) of more than 600,000 civil war refugees, prompting Mozambique to close its border. The border closure forced Malawi to use South African ports at great expense. In the face of intense speculation over Banda's successor, he began to eliminate powerful officials through expulsions and possibly assassinations.
In 1992, Malawi suffered the worst drought of the century. That same year there were violent protests against Banda's rule, and Western nations suspended aid to the country. In a 1993 referendum Malawians voted for an end to one-party rule, and parliament passed legislation establishing a multiparty democracy and abolishing the life presidency. In a free election in 1994, Banda was defeated by Bakili Muluzi, his former political protégé, who called for a policy of national reconciliation. Muluzi formed a coalition cabinet, with members from his own United Democratic Front (UDF) and the rival Alliance for Democracy (AFORD). Disillusioned with the coalition, AFORD pulled out of the government in 1996. When Muluzi was reelected in 1999, AFORD joined the MCP in an unsuccessful court challenge of his election.
In 2002, Muluzi began a campaign to have the constitution changed so he could run for a third term, but the move sparked political and popular opposition and was abandoned the next year. In late 2003, AFORD again formed an alliance with the UDF. Aided by a split in the opposition, the UDF candidate, Bingu wa Mutharika, won the 2004 presidential election. The UDF, however, failed to win even a plurality in parliament, but Mutharika formed a majority coalition with independents and the small National Democratic Alliance.
Mutharika launched an anticorruption campaign that alienated many in the UDF, including former president Muluzi, and in 2005 Mutharika left the UDF and established the Democratic Progressive party (DPP). Mutharika subsequently faced abortive attempts by the UDF to impeach him. A crop failure in 2005 resulted in a drastic food shortage in the country and high food prices, and led to new policies designed to increase agricultural production.
In Feb., 2006, the president dismissed Vice President Cassim Chilumpha, a Muluzi ally, but Chilumpha appealed the dismissal to Malawi's high court, on the grounds that only parliament could remove him. In March, the court suspended the dismissal pending its decision. The next month, however, the vice president was arrested and charged with treason. In July, former president Muluzi was arrested on corruption charges, but the charges were dropped a month later. A high court panel ruled in Dec., 2006, that the president did not have the right to dismiss the vice president. Subsequently, President Mutharika, in his 2007 New Year's message, accused opposition parties and the judiciary of dividing the nation; he also accused the judiciary of bias against the government. Relations between the president and opposition parties were acrimonious into 2008; in May, 2008, the government charged several opposition figures with plotting a coup.
Mutharika was reelected by a landslide in the May, 2009, elections; the DPP won a majority in parliament as well. His main opponent, John Tembo of the Malawi Congress party, accused the DPP of rigging the election; international observers said the president had monopolized state media coverage of the campaign. Muluzi, who had sought to run but was barred, supported Tembo. In July, 2011, economic problems and the government's increasing intolerance for criticism and dissent led to demonstrations that were bloodily suppressed by the police; the use of violence renewed local unhappiness with Mutharika and led to international criticism and some suspension of aid.
Mutharika died in Apr., 2012, and was succeeded by his vice president, Joyce Banda. Banda had become critical of Mutharika and had been expelled from the DPP; Mutharika's attempts to remove her as vice president had been unsuccessful. (In Mar., 2013, Mutharika's brother and other DPP officials were charged with treason for allegedly seeking to prevent Banda from succeeding to the presidency.) Banda instituted austerity policies recommended by the International Monetary Fund, which initially led to increased inflation in the country. The measures were designed in part to restore needed international aid.
In Sept., 2013, the shooting of the country's budget director led to the discovery of the Cashgate scandal, involving the theft of millions of dollars of government funds by more than 60 suspects; the budget director was believed to have been targeted because of his opposition to such looting. Banda reshuffled her cabinet as result, dismissing her finance minister. Malawi suffers from a high AIDS infection rate, with roughly one seventh of the population affected.