They are supposed to be the bedrock where Malawi’s future should rest on. Youths make up over half of Malawi’s population, they are energetic and full of ideas.
But the state of Malawi’s youths today symbolises a nation standing on hollow bedrock, devoid of substance and relevance. But why?
It all began in 1994.
The abandonment of the National Youth Week Initiative was tragic. This was a programme in which youths could provide voluntary labour to the nation on various projects and also showcase the product of the skills they learnt from Malawi Young Pioneer (MYP) bases.
“It left youths, especially those that could not make it into college and also those from poor backgrounds, without an avenue where they could learn entrepreneurship skills for their survival. The result is well evident today: High unemployment and poverty among the youths,” says Mwanza Central MP, Nicholas Dausi.
Because most youths continue to stay idle, without a purpose with their lives, politicians have ended up capturing them into their party military wings to wreck havoc on opposition. What was MCP’s MYP gave birth to the United Democratic Front’s (UDF) Young Democrats (YD); and the YD spilled to Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) Youth Cadets.
The work of the Young Democrats and Youth Cadets was there for all to see— beating up opposition and threatening the wider public, as was evident on July 19 last year, when the Youth Cadets drove around town in DPP pick-up, brandishing machetes to instil fear in Malawians who had planned peaceful demonstrations the next day.
So, should the National Youth Week be reintroduced to revamp youth’s relevance to society?
“Yes. The week did a lot to instil the spirit of hard work, self-help and patriotism in the youths,” agrees Sosten Gwengwe, an independent youthful parliamentarian from Dedza Central.
He adds: “It should not be compulsory given the current overtones of democracy and human rights. Rather the youths should take it upon themselves to be counted [and] valuable to the nation.”
Even Dausi—who advances that he would support a bill introduced to Parliament on the same—agrees with Gwengwe.
According to Alexander Mseka, principal secretary in the Ministry of Youth and Sports, government, after calls to do so from several youth groupings, is bringing back the Youth Week.
“It took time for people to accept the idea, given its history. But it has been interesting that calls to have it reintroduced were mostly coming from the youth themselves. That, certainly, underlines its importance.
“In fact, we were supposed to launch it some time back, but the demise of president Bingu wa Mutharika disturbed the plans. But I can report to you that, after Parliament discussed it, we were given the mandate to reintroduce it,” he says.
He says, however, that it will not be as it used to be in the Dr Kamuzu Banda’s era, when it was mandatory, organised and administered at central government level.
“This time it will not be mandatory given the democratic dispensation we are in. Most importantly, it will now be organised and administered by youths themselves at the district level. So each district will have its own programme and they will come up with their budgets and all the logistics. We will just come in to complement,” says Mseka.
Despite the news of its return, political and governance specialist Dr Henry Chingaipe doubts the effectiveness of the Youth Week as a mechanism of revamping youth’s relevance to society.
“The initiative used to be efficient because of the political system then. Not today. We are in a different political environment. How will we manage to mobilise youths today to go and work as it used to be?
“The political environment then was more communal. It is different from the individualist one we have these days. Today, everybody minds his or her own business” he says.
Certainly, he adds, Malawians youths do not need so much of a week to render voluntary service to the nation.
Chingaipe argues that Malawian youths need initiatives that will teach them job experience and prepare them for the industry.
“We have a number of diploma and degree graduates just loafing. Why don’t we have a National Youth Service like it is in Ghana?” queries Chingaipe.
Ghana—one of the African countries with a functional democracy and a robust economy to development—has an interesting National Youth Service Scheme.
Supported by an Act of Parliament, the scheme provides that any citizen of Ghana, who has attained the age of 18 or more, shall be engaged in a national service for two years.
Through a board which runs the Scheme, the youths, subject to the provisions of this act, are directed to engage, full time, in different fields.
Among others, they include, agriculture, co-operatives, education, health, military, and any other field that the board may prescribe from time to time.
Too strict the law is on the scheme, that any person who satisfactorily completes his/her period of national service is awarded a Certificate of National Service by the Board.
In fact, Section 7 of the Ghana National Service Act, 1980, clearly spells out the consequences of not having the Certificate of National Service.
It provides that a person who has not commenced and started his period of national service shall not just obtain employment outside the scheme or be employed by any other person outside the Scheme.
The person is not even supposed to be engaged in any employment outside the scheme, whether self-employed or otherwise, without the prior permission, in writing, of the board.
Other countries with a similar scheme include Zimbabwe, South Africa, Nigeria and even in the United Kingdom.
“Such comprehensive programmes builds the youths; it helps them a lot to learn than just a week of providing labour,” says Chingaipe.
Mseka, too, acknowledges the importance of having a comprehensive programme on the youths.
“The Head of State has repeatedly been heard talking about the need for us having a National Youth Service programme. I understand it is not something that can be done in a day. But, surely, we are working on that,” he says.
The challenge is that such a programme mostly targets youths that already have certain skills. But what about those without skills, who are in the majority and again are the most vulnerable to be used by politicians?
Dumisa Kaponda, project officer for Network for Youth Development (NYD), advances that despite the need for the Youth and National Youth Service programme, Malawi needs a programme that should, mostly, target youths from poor backgrounds, those who can’t make it to colleges.
“It should be mandatory. They should learn various vocational and entrepreneurship skills to be self reliant. Through that at least most youths, irrespective of their social status, will become relevant again to society,” she said.