Malawi won her independence in the so- called “decade of independence”, from 1960 to 1970. During that period, African nationalists celebrated their victory having driven out European colonialists, notably from Britain, France and Belgium.
Once independence was achieved, there were historical goals such as total decolonisation, nation building, economic development, democracy and regional integration.
As Malawi clocks 54 years of independence from British rule, an assessment of the present state of the country is necessary. This article argues that, for all the setbacks that Malawi has suffered over the past half century, substantial progress has been made in a number of areas excluding the youth.
The youth have been neglected for 54 years after attaining independence. This becomes a subject of importance given the fact that today, many youths are experiencing economic hardships, misery, high levels of unemployment and indiscipline.
Let us be quick to point out that Malawi is far from being perfect. Generally, the majority of Malawians have much lower standards of living given the resources the country has. It’s time the country undergoes a serious political and social transformation.
Since 1994, political developments have, despite shortcomings and deficits, been encouraging. This is taking into consideration where Malawi comes from: three decades of autocratic rule. The socio-economic and political conditions (poverty, poor infrastructure, almost nonexistent civil society structures and political authoritarianism) were heavy burdens on the road to establishing and consolidating a democratic system of government.
Our democratic system is far from being considered as consolidated. It is still fragile and can be overthrown at any point.
In Malawi, there are only few people who would defend the democratic system. For the time being and for the near future, it might be sufficient that democracy exists only in the urban areas while the large rural population is politically marginalised. In the long run, it will be necessary for the consolidation process that the rural populations are included.
This requires time, civic education and access to information, as well as a certain degree of economic and social development. People who are concerned with their daily survival are not ready to enjoy political participation, rule of law, human rights and political articulation. The majority of rural Malawian population is more or less excluded from services the State should offer. Among the marginalised are the youth.
They have long represented an important constituency for electoral mobilisation in Africa. Today, as the region faces a growing ‘youth bulge’ that is disproportionately burdened by unemployment and under employment, capturing the votes of this demography is becoming more important than ever before. Yet, despite their numerical importance and the historical relevance of generational identities within the region, very little is known about the political participation of our youth apart from clapping hands, singing for mediocre leaders, closeness to political parties; participation in protests, burning houses, cars, torturing, humiliating and even killing dissidents. Indeed, nationalist leaders often engaged disaffected youth in their struggle for independence and relied on the youth to provide legitimacy to post-colonial regimes.
Some African scholars paint a dire picture of Africa’s youth, especially in urban areas, noting that they are out of school, unemployed and are loose molecules in an unstable social fluid that threatens to ignite.
Through youth leagues and other associations, rulers have traditionally formed strong attachments with the youth and even encouraged them to engage in political violence. For instance, Malawi’s first independence president, Dr Hastings Banda, transformed the Malawi Young Pioneers to a youth wing and a paramilitary group of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) that terrorised pro-democracy activists. Almost three decades later, they have been replaced with cadets who are attached to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
The 54 years of political independence in Malawi has been marred by mysterious deaths of some youth which has been a major threat to democratic rights, free speech, public criticism elements that are necessary in the debating and achieving of national development.
Malawi has experienced these politically-engineered mysterious deaths for the larger part of its history.
In this case, the republican and democratic promises in Malawi have not been achieved as is evident in the mysterious murders of citizens who expressed their thoughts in exercising their freedom of speech enshrined in Malawi democratic Constitution.
The killing of young people deemed to be critics of the regime has common features and thread that runs through to connect their one nature. All these deaths are politically-engineered and involve some kind of violence and symbolise the implacable anger.
Malawian youths who died in politically-engineered murders from 1964 to 2015 epitomise the conflict between the citizens or the civil society and the State. The murders genuinely reflect the nature of ‘public sphere’ in the Republic of Malawi which is colonised by the State to the extent that public criticism and debate are not tolerated.
For example, Evison Matafale and Robert Chasowa are youthful victims of the Republic of Malawi’s efforts to suppress the growth of public sphere.
Further, economically, a huge chunk of the Malawian youths remain illiterate and live below the poverty line. It makes me sad that after 54 years of independence, the youth are still marginalised classified as novices or future leaders who do not need to get concerned with prevailing issues affecting them, their communities and the country.
The youth in Malawi are currently used for political mobilisation to fight and wound members of the opposing camps during elections. They are often used to silence critical voices and disturb efforts of the opposing side in political and governance debates.
This partly explains the low representation and participation of youth leaders in the formulation and implementation of laws and policies that govern them and affect their chances in life. Youth participation in politics is a critical priority. However, the situation in Malawi and many African countries has created conditions that hardly favour them.
Some of the problems that impede the effective participation of the youth in public affairs are mainly to do with inequalities in the social, economic and political arena. One of them is the shortage of opportunities for education, vocational training and access to higher education.
Additionally, the failure to respect the human rights of the youth as active citizens has created difficulties when it comes to youth participation in political leadership.
Levels of youth unemployment are so high that young people engage in vices, antisocial behaviours such as delinquency, alcoholism, street fighting, prostitution, laziness and immoral behaviours that do not contribute to their well-being, but put their lives and potential at risk.
Lack of quality education facilities has contributed to the increased levels of illiteracy among the youth, who constitute the majority of the population in Malawi and Africa.
This has derailed their participation in the development process of the country. Government and stakeholders, including young Malawians, need to realise that youth participation in the planning and implementation of the country’s development agenda is required now, not in the future.
The people demand to play a major role in ensuring that the so-called “mentors” or “elders”, who want to cling to power or leadership positions that belong to all citizens, are held accountable for making policies that fail to empower the young majority.
It is for this reason that the youth need to strongly advocate for the people’s government.
Young Malawians need a government that does not only sign international declarations and conventions for the sake of pleasing superpowers and the rest of the world, but domesticates and implements them so that leaders are made accountable for the services and enabling environments they do not provide.
Youth participation in socio-economic and civic development is vital for the development of any country. It is believed that when the youth are not fully engaged, there is a high probability of their energies being expanded in a destructive manner. So the youth should be engaged, their energies utilised productively and constructively.
Youth involvement is an important means to overcome disrespect and marginalisation of young people at a time the continent is experiencing a boom in the population of the youth.
When done rightly, youth participation can contribute to a positive change in society.
*The author is head of History at the Catholic University