LUSAKA, ZAMBIA -- "Our present rulers in Africa are in every sense late-flowering medieval monarchs . . ." Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in his 1988 novel, "Anthills of the Savannah"

In most nations of black Africa there is a "Big Man" whose power and pretensions border on the imperial.

His face is on the money. His every pronouncement is "news." Excepting praise, his policies are above comment. His wrath, as sanctified by a law that in many African nations is called the Preservation of Public Security Act, can cast anyone into prison without trial. In homes and offices throughout his realm, it is prudent -- often it is mandatory -- to display his photograph in a place of honor.

These latter-day "medieval monarchs" rule with few checks and balances from courts, legislatures or voters. They have usurped the traditional authority of African tribal chiefs and welded it to the power of the modern nation state.

This two-part series profiles two leaders who rule in next-door nations in southern Africa. Like many of the young nations of sub-Saharan Africa, most of which were born within the past three decades, Zambia and Malawi have been fashioned in the images of their leaders.

The strikingly different economic paths taken by the two neighboring nations, along with the intractable problems each now faces, are tied inextricably to the vision and blindness, statesmanship and intolerance, passions and vanities of their respective Big Men, as their countrymen commonly refer to them.

Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia is an emotional and public man, one of the best known and most accessible leaders in Africa. A devout Christian, he says his inspiration as a leader is his "love for mankind as a whole." He always carries a freshly ironed white linen handkerchief in his left hand and frequently weeps into it when making speeches about the tribulations of Africa.

Kaunda prides himself on his "principled commitment" to socialism. He has subsidized the price of food in Zambia's cities, and, in so doing, has made his country the most urbanized in black Africa. He is also committed to ending white-minority rule in nearby South Africa. He risks the military wrath of Pretoria by allowing his nation to be home base for the African National Congress, the banned South African opposition movement.

Hastings Kamuzu Banda of Malawi is an altogether different kind of Big Man, a leader whose insular style has made his nation into something akin to the Albania of Africa. He wears a black homburg, preaches self-reliance and regularly scolds his countrymen for not weeding their cornfields.

Banda prides himself on his commitment to agriculture. He insists that Malawians stay out of cities and grow food. As a result, his impoverished country boasts remarkably tidy cities and regularly does what few African nations ever do -- it feeds itself. Banda also prides himself on his pragmatism and he is conspicuously silent on white rule in South Africa, one of Malawi's major trading partners. He is the only leader in Africa to maintain full diplomatic relations with Pretoria.

As different as Kaunda and Banda are, they are both classically patriarchal African leaders. As such, their survival depends as much on power games and cunning as on policy success or popularity. They both rely on certain time-tested African ruling techniques:

They shuffle senior ministers constantly, balancing tribal jealousies, undercutting pretenders to the throne. Banda and Kaunda make scapegoats of unpopular minorities for political gain, control the national press and foster cults of personality that equate their personal well-being with national survival. Serious political opponents of both men tend to become detainees or exiles.

This system of governance has taken root across independent Africa in the past two decades as much of the continent has been sucked downward in a spiral of state corruption and declining per-capita food production, of human rights abuses and mounting foreign debt, of stagnant development and civil war.

Under this system, which Africa scholars term "patrimonial" and consider the region's dominant political model for many years to come, the future of the world's poorest continent depends to an extraordinary degree on the character of the ruler in the capital.

As long as he remains in control of the armed forces, the Big Man is free to stamp his political theories and economic schemes on the country he rules. His private business dealings and those of his family are usually above the law. Short of a coup d'etat -- a regular occurrence in modern Africa, with more than 70 in the past 25 years -- there is no mechanism that insulates Africans from a leader's flaws.

In Zambia and Malawi, as across Africa, the patrimonial system seems to have one overriding purpose: to perpetuate the reign of the man in charge. As these two profiles show, the care and feeding of a Big Man's power can undermine the economy of a nation or obliterate the civil rights of all those who live within it.

After more than a quarter century of independence, only four civilian leaders in the 47 black-ruled countries of sub-Saharan Africa have voluntarily chosen to retire. With the exception of two leaders in Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean, not one African leader has permitted voters to end his reign.The Charming "Big Man"

Kenneth David Kaunda, now 64 years old, is probably the most charming, likable and articulate Big Man in Africa.

He is unique among African leaders in receiving a steady stream of foreign journalists and granting long, unstructured interviews. He seems to relish conversation and does not shirk from pointed questions, political or personal. Last year he acknowledged that one of his sons had died of AIDS.

"I expose myself {to the press} because I want to hear whether what I am doing is getting through. I have to explain myself," Kaunda said in an interview.

He plays golf regularly with foreign diplomats on the private course he had built behind his State House mansion in Lusaka. During a recent Saturday morning's round, he teased U.S. Ambassador Paul Hare for hooking his first tee shot.

"Your excellency, I'm going to report to President Reagan that you have gone left," said Kaunda, chuckling at his own joke and driving his own tee shot straight and long.

The son of a Church of Scotland preacher, Kaunda grew up in a mission compound in what was then Northern Rhodesia. His father ran the house according to stern Christian precepts and demanded Kenneth's attendance at daily devotional services. After his father's death, the boy worked his way through school by washing dishes at the home of the white missionary in charge of the mission. Kaunda was trained as a teacher and became a scoutmaster.

He does not drink, smoke or eat red meat. He laces his speeches with quotes from the Bible and refers constantly in conversation to his "Philosophy of Humanism," a melange of Christianity and socialism, that he has published in two volumes.

When he was teaching school in the early 1950s, he began reading leftist political tracts published in England. Colonial police sentenced him to two months in jail for owning a socialist pamphlet called "The African and Colonial World." His first trip to Europe in 1957 was paid for by Britain's Labor Party.

At a press conference in July, he began by saying, "Each one of us is God's child. We are all agreed that the positive forces of love, truth, social justice and fair play must continue to guide us across color, across tribe, across religion, across anything artificial. That is our guiding light."

In the 24 years that he has been in power, a reign that began after he led the independence movement that transformed Northern Rhodesia into Zambia in 1964, Kaunda's personal life has remained remarkably consistent with his rhetoric.

He works long hours and, unlike many African leaders, has not used the power of the state to make himself fabulously rich. He has opposed white-minority rule with more vigor than any leader on the continent, supporting guerrilla groups fighting in Portuguese-ruled Mozambique, in Ian Smith's Rhodesia and now in South Africa. That support has bled Zambia's economy and continues to subject the country to commando attack.

Kaunda's personality and his principles have washed well internationally. He is chairman of the Frontline States, a group of black-ruled countries that ring South Africa, and he has twice been elected chairman of the Organization of African Unity. He has helped mediate the end to several civil wars in Africa, most recently in Chad.

He also has been, until recently, a favorite of European politicians, who fancied his socialism and lavished aid money on his government. Until two years ago, Zambia was one of the world's largest per-capita recipients of foreign aid.

After decades of performing on a regional and international stage, Kaunda seems more at ease making pronouncements on pan-African and global issues than in dealing with Zambia's thorny economic problems. In a recent press conference, he skipped quickly around Zambian issues. Then he spent the better part of two hours urging peace in the Persian Gulf and demanding a "denuclearized" world, characterizing toxic-waste dumping as "a tragic thing" and calling for a homeland for Palestinians, advocating reunification of Germany and Korea and describing Mikhail Gorbachev "as God's greatest gift to mankind this century." Spending the Copper Revenue

For all his humanist principles and his status as a senior statesman, Kaunda has presided over the economic disintegration of his country.

Zambia has tumbled in 20 years from being one of black Africa's richest and fastest growing countries to being an economic invalid. Per-capita income has fallen 30 percent in the past 12 years. There are chronic shortages of staple foods and essential spare parts. The rate of child death from malnutrition has doubled in the past decade.

Kaunda often has said that his country was born "with a copper spoon in its mouth." In the first decade after independence, high copper prices fueled an economic growth rate of about 13 percent a year and Zambia was awash in prosperity.

His treasury full of copper revenue, Kaunda spent the money as fast as it came in. He built schools, hospitals and roads. He subsidized health care, higher education and the price of food.

"I am proud to say we invested wisely," he said recently in an interview. "We invested in the development of man, first-class social services."

The pattern of this investment, however, quickly made it clear that the men, women and children that Kaunda was keen on developing were those who lived in cities.

Jobs in the booming copper industry were to be had in the Copper Belt cities of northern Zambia; jobs in Kaunda's growing bureaucracy were to be had in the capital, Lusaka. The income gap between town and country grew to 15 to 1. (The gap is now 3.5 to 1, largely because urban income has fallen so sharply in the last decade.)

It did not take long before half the population moved to town and Zambia became the most urban country in Africa. The depopulated and neglected farm sector, the traditional base of Zambian society and the economic heart of Africa, couldn't feed the cities and so food was imported. It was paid for, like the rest of the humanist society, with copper money.

"Money has been spent hand over fist, and all on totally unproductive investments. The money from the country's copper, the only developed sector, has been used to build an urban civilization that's turning out to be ruinously expensive in terms of upkeep," wrote French agricultural economist Rene Dumont in his 1983 book "Stranglehold on Africa."

"Yet the basis of this civilization is agricultural, and still very largely African and traditional, with very few industries. So the towns have feet of clay," Dumont wrote.

When the price of copper collapsed in the mid 1970s, Kaunda began borrowing from foreign governments, commercial banks and multilateral agencies to prop up the subsidized life to which urban Zambians had grown accustomed. Zambia borrowed about $6 billion, continued to neglect agriculture and hoped in vain that the price of copper would rebound.

"The only admission I make, where I went wrong, is that we subsidized consumption for too long," Kaunda said. Hostage to a Restive Population

Like most of the nations of independent Africa, Zambia is an artificial creation of colonial mapmakers, a fictional amalgam of 73 different tribes, many of which resent and are suspicious of each other. Keeping peace among the tribes is a principal preoccupation of Africa's Big Men. Failure to do so is frequently fatal.

Kaunda has said that the first essential for any African nation is that it must "remain standing . . . . The ultimate calamity would be tribal warfare and the end of the nation's fragile administrative structure."

Thus, in addition to spending large sums on the urban population, Kaunda has also used the nation's copper revenues to sustain his system of governance. To keep everyone as happy and as nonviolent as possible, and to keep himself comfortably in control of all 73 tribes, Kaunda expanded the civil service and nationalized two-thirds of his country's industries. He parceled out tens of thousands of jobs, judiciously spreading them among the tribes and members of the ruling party that he controls.

The number of civil service employees grew to 76,000, nearly twice the number of those in neighboring Malawi, a country with the same population. Jobs in nationalized industries soared to 93,000. Economists estimate that four of every 10 people who have a wage job in Zambia receive their paychecks courtesy of Kaunda's patrimonial state.

"All the nationalized companies went into the red," said a European diplomat here. "But as long as there was money it was O.K."

The money, of course, from copper and loans did not last. (Reserves of copper will run out completely in two decades.) And Kaunda's humanistic society has been imploding for several years. A recent report by the British aid agency Oxfam says per-capita government spending on education fell 62 percent in the past decade, while spending on essential drugs in the past four years declined 75 percent. There is almost no money to maintain roads, hospitals or schools. Mass transport hardly exists.

"A combination of health spending cuts, drought, insufficient attention to domestic food production and deepening recession has helped to create a sharp drop in Zambia's nutritional status and health, and a sharp rise in child mortality during the 1980s," the Oxfam report said.

Across Africa, the standard remedy for an overdose of socialism is the free-market medicine of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Kaunda has tried the bitter cure several times.

But city dwellers angrily resist the removal of food subsidies, which make up 20 percent of the government's budget. The price of the country's staple food, cornmeal, would triple without subsidies. In crumbling cities, where unemployment, hunger and crime are rampant, there is no appetite for further belt-tightening.

An IMF-mandated increase in cornmeal prices triggered riots in the Copper Belt in December 1986. Fearing that the violence would spread to the capital and possibly lead to his overthrow, Kaunda called out the Army.

"What happened? Fifteen dead in rioting in the Copper Belt. Fifteen!" said Kaunda. "My Army is for defending the people, not for killing them."

In the wake of the riots, Kaunda mollified the cities. He postponed desperately needed reform, brought back cornmeal subsidies and tossed out the free-market medicine.

Zambia, as a result, lost about $200 million in concessional loans from western donors, as well as $400 million for rebuilding the country's crumbling infrastructure.

As major African nations such as Nigeria and Ghana struggle to implement painful reforms -- phasing out food subsidies, selling off bankrupt state industries and adjusting exchange rates to make exports attractive on the world market -- Kaunda continues to drag his feet or move in the opposite direction.

"My dear brother," he said recently, "I do not understand this talk about selling everything that we {the Zambia government} have. We are succeeding."

Most western donors believe that Kaunda, despite his personal charm and senior statesman status, is in deep trouble as a leader. They see him as a hostage to a restive urban population accustomed to a standard of living that Zambia cannot afford.

"He has no understanding of economics and economics is the future of his country," a western diplomat said recently, voicing the lament of economists ant bankers interviewed in Zambia over the past three years. "He has driven his country beyond the point where an easy, smooth solution is possible. The government is between burning and hanging. Tens of thousands of people have to lose their jobs. But if that happens there will be fires in the cities." "Rough Stuff" as a Last Resort

Without copper or borrowed money, Kaunda can no longer buy off his problems. Yet for an archetypical Big Man, even one with deep Christian principles and a "man-centered" philosophy, there is always the option of using muscle.

"Nobody among African statesmen can stay in power making nice speeches and carrying a white handkerchief," said a western ambassador here. "There is always some rough stuff."

The rough stuff appears to be accumulating in Zambia in direct proportion to the country's economic miseries.

One night last spring, Kaunda pressed the country's National Assembly to pass a law empowering seizure, without trial, of businesses thought to be trading in the black market. The next day soldiers took over the shops of 187 Zambian merchants, almost all of them of Indian or Pakistani descent. Black Zambians cheered the seizures and, for several days, were diverted from complaints about lack of bread, cooking oil and soap in government shops. (The shortages came with Kaunda's imposition in 1987 of price controls.)

Despite his vow never "to preside over a country in which racial groups are discriminated against," Kaunda had bought himself time by "Asian bashing," a technique sometimes used by other East African leaders to shore up popular support.

Another familiar technique of struggling African leaders is intimidation of the national legislature. Economic hardship has, in recent years, precipitated grumbling and embarrassing questions about Kaunda's priorities from a handful of members of the National Assembly.

This election year, candidates for the legislature will be vetted by the country's Central Committee, the all-powerful policy-making body that Kaunda controls.

"The candidates are frightened men," said Sikota Wina, a former government minister and one-time senior adviser to Kaunda. "They know that from now on if they oppose Kaunda's policies publicly, they will not be vetted."

In addition, like leaders in Malawi, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania and several other African countries, Kaunda has at his disposal a detention law that allows him to jail anyone in the country and keep the prisoner there as long as he likes. Last year, he ordered 37 persons detained. Detention and the threat of it are reliable tools by which African leaders intimidate critics into silence.

According to a U.S. State Department report on human rights in Zambia, "there are credible allegations that police and military personnel have resorted to excessive force when interviewing detainees or prisoners. Alleged abuses . . .include beatings, withholding of food, pain inflicted on various parts of the body, long periods of solitary confinement and threats of execution."

For the presidential election in October, Kaunda again has been nominated as the sole candidate of the one legal party. Asked recently if he would tolerate an opponent, Kaunda replied, "Anyone who is prepared to challenge me is most welcome, most welcome. I like to fight a clean fight and I will make a very clean job of it."

The statement dramatizes the widening gap between Kaunda the humanist, the committed Christian who insists he is "a democrat through and through," and Kaunda the Big Man, whose system of governing tolerates no direct challenge.

According to Sikota Wina, one of the architects of Zambia's constitution, "it is impossible to run against Kaunda. It is a watertight system to produce one candidate. There is no way in which anyone can actually challenge the president."

NEXT: The reign of Malawi's Hastings Kamuzu Banda

COMPARING THE COUNTRIES

ZAMBIA.

Population......6.9 million..

Area............290,586 square miles, larger than Texas

Urbanization....48% of the population lives in cities. Major centers are Lilongwe and Blantyre.

Education.......100% of children old enough for primary school are enrolled; 19% of those old enough for secondary school are enrolled.

Health..........One physician for every 7,800 people; 2% of babies suffer from low birth weight.

Foreign Debt....$6.5 billion. Not permitted additional borrowing from International Monetary Fund, World Bank and most major western countries because of nonpayment of IMF debt.

Agriculture/ Food...Cereal imports and food aid totaled 230,000 metric tons in 1986. Total value of farm produce was $179 million. MALAWI

Population.....7.4 million

Area...........45,747 square miles, about the size of Pennsylvania.

Urbanization...12% of the population lives in cities. Major centers are Lusaka, Kitwe and Ndola.

Education......62% of children old enough for primary school are enrolled; 4% of those old enough for secondary school are enrolled.

Health.........One physician for every 52,830 people; 20% of babies suffer from low birth weight.

Foreign Debt...$1.25 billion. Recently negotiated concessional loans and grants from International Monetary Fund, World Bank and western donor countries totaling about $230 million.

Agriculture/Food.....Cereal imports and food aid totaled 11,000 metric tons in 1986. Total value of farm produce was $404 million.

SOURCES: World Bank, International Monetary Fund, Malawi National Statistical Office