Youths make dictators, too

The push by young people in Malawi to assume leadership in 2014, is sensible and appealing. The youthful population has an undeserved feeling of disillusionment, frustration and displeasure at the way the older generation of leaders has stifled the country’s progress.

Who can blame the youth for feeling that way, when old leaders have time and again displayed tendencies of one-man rule, monopoly of wealth, strangulation of free speech and the deprivation of fundamental freedoms? In fact, youth political space in Malawi has been synonymous with party hoodlums and machete-wielding ruffians usually hired to hack political opponents. How sad!

Young people in Malawi have expectations of a society that is transparent, prosperous and modern. That hope rests in the Atupele Muluzis, Henry Phoyas, Ralph Kasambaras, Jessie Kabwila-Kapasulas, and other equally brilliant young men and women out there.

But does youthfulness guarantee better democracy and prosperity? Not necessarily. Equating youth with change is a huge political fallacy. Indeed there are cases where young people have assumed leadership in Africa and elsewhere, and they have turned out to be just as tyrannical and heavy-handed as the so-called “old guard” that preceded them. A few examples may ably illustrate this.

Joseph Kabila was 30 when he assumed power in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Is the DRC any more democratic or modernised today than it was in 2001? Are the Congolese a more progressive society today by virtue of Kabila’s youthfulness?

Gnassingbé Eyadéma was 30 when he wrestled power in Togo in 1967. He went on to become the longest serving head of state in Africa at the time of his death in 2005. Multiparty democracy only came to Togo in the late 1990s and he made sure he stayed in power, by hook or crook, until his death.

Madagascar’s Andry Rajoelina is currently the youngest serving head of state in Africa, and the third youngest in the world. He was 35 when he toppled Ravalomanana in 2009. What has changed in Madagascar since he took over power?

Meles Zenawi was 36 when he assumed the position of prime minister of Ethiopia in 1991. Is Ethiopia any better today than it was under Mengistu? Very few Ethiopians would nod their heads to that.

Syria’s Bashar al Asad was 35 when he succeeded his father in 2000. Over 6 000 Syrians, and counting, have been butchered by his regime in the last few months.

I do not mean to demonise young leaders here, and I am aware that there exist some young leaders that have governed so well in other countries, including US President Barack Obama and Igor Lukšic of Montenegro (now 35).

But my point is: Age is not a panacea for our political miseries. Young leaders, however committed to change they might be at a personal level, end up being transformed into dictators by society itself.

Malawians have a nasty history of creating and recreating ‘cults’ out of their leaders. Imagine what the idiotic idea of women singing and dancing to presidents at political gatherings and official government functions does to the ego of the leader. What lunacy makes us think it is normal for a president to have a convoy of vehicles, yet more than half the population barely survives on a single pitiful meal a day and piped water remains a far-fetched dream for them? Why do we tolerate the insane extravagance of presidential entourages, sometimes comprising illiterate party women, even when going to the UN General Assembly? How, in this day and age, do we turn a blind eye to a single mortal monopolising the State broadcaster that runs on taxes of 14 million miserable Malawians?

The foregoing are just four of the many issues we have to be rid of as a society if we are to prevent the young leaders from embracing the very status quo we are against. After all, in the event that they become presidents, they will also enjoy those obtuse privileges. And perhaps that is why they want the presidency in the first place.

Being young is not good enough. Let those young people that are aspiring for leadership, including Atupele, James Nyondo and others, promise that those personality cult-creating tendencies, including the dancing and ululating women, massive convoys and large entourages, among other unnecessary expenses, will be put to a stop immediately they assume power. This madness must stop if the country is to make some progress toward ridding itself of perennial dictatorships.  –The author is a development and public policy practitioner and frequently writes on social issues.

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