Politics and violence seem to enjoy a rather healthy matrimony in Malawi. Our history, since independence, as a matter of fact, reveals that violence has, with varying levels of intensity and sophistication, always been part of Malawian politics. Think about the First Republic, for starters. As soon as independence was secured, the wisdom of the day ensured that we quickly became a One-party State with a life president. Many people have written about the brutality that became synonymous with the One-party State and I will not belabour the point. However, the only sense in which many people remember the Malawi Young Pioneers and the MCP Youth Leaguers is probably tinged with spectres of the violence that these entities perpetrated. I actually doubt if there has been an authentic and comprehensive accountability process for all the atrocities that were perpetrated during the One-party State—for now, let’s keep this discussion for another day.
Our transition to a multiparty democracy did not, sadly, banish the demons of political violence in the country. No sooner was the Second Republic in office than the nation was introduced to a cadre of thugs politically referred to as ‘Young Democrats.’ Well, I am not sure whether these fellas were indeed young but they certainly weren’t very democratic. Newspaper reports, from the time, are replete with stories about the violence that the Young Democrats inflicted on those whose political views they did not approve of. Looking back, it is clear that the Young Democrats were simply a continuation of the Malawi Young Pioneers and the Youth Leaguers rolled into one entity with a democratically beguiling name.
As it has turned out, however, the Young Democrats were not the end of the story. Somewhere along the way, there was a change of government and the nation was introduced to yet a different level of thuggery. This time the hoodlums have been trading as ‘Youth Cadets’, so I am informed. Although another deceptive moniker was again used, I am not so convinced about the youthfulness of these so-called cadets but in terms of methods, they aren’t that different from the Young Democrats and by extension there’s little to differentiate them from the Malawi Young Pioneers and the Youth Leaguers. If you can get my drift, you will note that there has been a troubling continuity in the relationship between violence and politics in the country.
Over the past 20 years, thugs masquerading as the youth wings of various political parties have, with a measure of impunity, perpetrated violence across the country. In some instances, civil society leaders have found themselves the victims of the violence largely for voicing critical views about the government. In other instances, opposition leaders have been targeted. In many of these cases, the Police Service has demonstrated its compromised position by failing to conduct meaningful investigations and/or prosecutions. The result has been that as long as the thugs belong to the party in power at the time, violence on political opponents has gone unpunished. At the one level, this is a very sad reflection of the State of professionalism within the police service. At the other level, the continuous resort to violence suggests a failure to embrace the demands of multiparty politics. A failure to countenance divergence of opinions and views and to permit political competition to be premised on ideas. The continued affinity between violence and politics also reveals the shallowness of our democracy.
As we are heading into the next general elections, the relationship between politics and violence in Malawi will again become prominent. It is not by default that violence has been ubiquitous in our politics. This is a result of cold-hearted calculations by gullible politicians. Violence, however, is not necessary to political competition. We can have political competition devoid of violence. This, however, must start from the top. Political parties, being the dominant players in our politics, need to disavow all forms of violence. Look, if a political party establishes a youth wing that by itself is not a bad thing. If, however, the political party establishes a youth wing simply as a means for organising thugs to terrorise political opponents, this is not only retrogressive but a waste of youthfulness. Political parties, therefore, need to focus on creating ways in which their youthful followers can participate in democratic processes without undermining the very values that allow for political plurality. Just by way of illustration, ‘cadetship’ presupposes preparation for a calling, what calling are the Youth Cadets being prepared for?
Violence should never be allowed to characterise our politics. Violence distorts political competition. It shrinks the space in which political competition can be defined by the merits and demerits of particular ideas. Is the resort to violence a way of stating that a political party does not have confidence in wooing supporters simply by the power of their manifesto? I wonder! Violence can only breed more violence. We truly do not want to get the nation on that slippery slope.
By way of conclusion, let me reiterate some truisms which should inform our thinking in a multiparty democracy. The political pluralism that we re-introduced in 1994 entails that we cannot all belong to the same political party neither can we hold the same views. This is the very essence of a multiparty democracy. The political space that we have created must be allowed, actually encouraged, to support different views and persuasions. Violence cannot be the response to the holding of different political views and opinions. Leaders of all political parties must ensure that their rank and file, walk the talk of non-violence in politics. They must unreservedly condemn any violence perpetrated in their names or in the names of their political parties.
*Associate Professor of Law, University of Malawi