Recently, Malawi joined the rest of the world in celebrating the International Youth Day. This year, the focus was on youth civic engagement. As FATSANI GUNYA and Dyson Mthawanji write, Malawi youth civic engagement, especially in politics, remains minimal:
When Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) took power in 1964, the role of the youth in politics became evident: They became his ‘eyes and ears’, quashing all of his real and imagined enemies.
The youth became instruments of fear. Through the Malawi Youth League, also known as chiswe (termites) for their red uniforms and the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP), the first Malawi leader instituted a reign of terror to silence his political opponents.
Even classes were disturbed whenever the President went out of the Sanjika Palace to tour crops, receive international guests and perform other engagements. The learners were forced to line up the streets and clap hands and sing praise songs for him. During preparations for Independence Day and the Kamuzu Day celebrations, some learners were taken off classes to participate in his propaganda youth rallies.
In 1994, with the coming of Bakili Muluzi and his United Democratic Front (UDF), the hope was things would change. That, however, was not to be as his Young Democrats (YDs) were engaged in beating up political opponents. At some points, some lost their lives. As a matter of fact, some YDs such as Charles Waya, who was involved in the torching of then opposition leader in Parliament Gwanda Chakuamba’s official vehicle died mysteriously when it was discovered he was double-crossing the two parties. His body was not found in his purported unmarked grave near Stella Maris in Blantyre during an inquiry by the Ombudsman.
The story remained the same when Bingu wa Mutharika took over the reins of power in 2004. His Youth Cadets continued from where the UDF youth cohorts stopped. A day before the July 20 2012 demonstrations against the Mutharika regime, the cadets were seen in DPP vehicles, brandishing panga knives to keep Malawians off the streets.
Although Joyce Banda’s youth tried to change the face of youth participation in politics, they, too, were involved in their own violent acts. A case in point was when Peter Mutharika’s aide Ben Phiri and DPP stalwart Nicholas Dausi were roughed up at Sunbird Mount Soche in Blantyre. Some of the youth were used to add flare, like the DPP youth, by painting their faces and bodies in party colours.
Over a year in power, Peter Mutharika’s DPP youth have carried on the painting of faces and bodies to symbolise their loyalty to the party.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
A United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Focal Point on Youth say there is strong evidence that the participation of young people in formal, institutional political processes is low when compared to older citizens across the globe. This challenges the representativeness of the political system and leads to the disenfranchisement of young people.
It is further noted that youth engagement in the political arena is a new priority.
“People under the age of 35 are rarely found in formal political leadership positions. In a third of countries in the world, eligibility for the national parliament starts at 25 years or higher and is common to refer to politicians as young if they are below 35 or 40 years old,” notes the fact sheet.
In a 2012 UN survey, 13 000 respondents from 186 countries highlighted that the main challenge for young people’s active and meaningful participation in their societies’ decision-making processes is limited opportunities.
It is no different in Malawi, stakeholders agree.
National Initiative for Civic Education (Nice) regional civic education officer for the centre Chris Naphiyo would have it although the youths are used in violence and being painted in party colours, they do not understand the political ideologies of their parties to fully engage in civics.
“Mostly, they paint themselves in political colours and sing for the leaders just because they are given money by the leaders. One wonders whether this is what it means by youth empowerment,” says Naphiyo.
According to him, there is a lot the youth should be doing to participate in governance and political issues instead of what is happening.
“There is so much they can do, instead of painting themselves and dancing for politicians, let alone engaging in violence. That is not how best they can contribute to their political parties,” he adds.
Naphiyo says youths should participate in governance issues starting from decision making level such as local governance.
Concurring with Naphiyo, Malawi Human Rights Youth Network (MHRYN) president Kingdom Kwapata says political parties and stakeholders should find something better for the youths rather than engage them in touchline politics.
Kwapata explains: “Although youths that paint themselves during political rallies are less than those who do not behave that way, the practice is bad. That is not the right way to engage youths in democracy.”
He further agrees the search for money is the drive, as the youth mostly lack income-generating activities to keep them off petty politics. He says there is need for Malawi to come up with many ways of empowering youths economically.
“Empowering the youth with education and help them become entrepreneurs or artisans when they fail to make it in other forms of employment. Unemployment will be reduced and no youth will be willing to paint his or her body just to get little money from political leaders,” says Kwapata.
For president of Young Politicians’ Union Charles Makuwa, the constitutional framework has not helped increased youth civic and political engagement.
“We thought by now Malawians would have fully understood what youth participation is all about. We still lack youths in leadership positions because old people still cling to different positions in our political parties,” says Makuwa.
Makuwa blames the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi, for instance, for stating that one should be 35 and above to vie for presidential position during national elections. Although the constitution sets the minimum legal age to contest for the hot seat, it has no age limit, a president aged over 80 can lead a civil service whose retirement age is 60.
“Malawi is still behind in as far as accommodating youths in leadership positions is concerned. Our constitution also frustrates youths. There are many capable youths who are doing well in entrepreneurship, civil society and other professions. However, they cannot vie for the presidential position because they are below the constitutionally acceptable age of 35,” complains Makuwa.
He calls for stakeholders to consider this ‘anomaly’ when they engage in constitutional review in future.
PP spokesperson Ken Msonda believes the abuse of the youth in politics roots from the way Malawi brands politics. “Instead of being the science of running a country, we take it as a game of pulling each other down. Politicians must serve the nation, that is why youth involvement is vital. It is high time they were accorded their legal needs,” observes Msonda.
His UDF counterpart Ken Ndanga says the youth are ‘an important resource’ not only in politics, but to the country as a whole.
“Of course, we have had problems with the youth as a party. Basically, it’s all about the youth knowing what they can contribute to society rather than wait to be told what to do. They are vulnerable. The big-wigs tend to see the youth as a threat and as such, they usually want to use and, at times, abuse them,” asserts Ndanga.
According to him, The youth have to start demanding programmes that can benefit them.
Both Nice and MHRYN have deliberate programmes to drill youths with leadership skills so that they know the productive way of participating in governance issues.