Malawi’s Young Democrats: A View From Inside the Ranks

Image: Flickr, Office Holidays
Image: Flickr, Office Holidays

IN 2001, Malawian Journalist Peter Banda was assaulted by a band of UDF youth militias while working on a story.

He recently caught up with one of his assailants, a long-serving member of the Young Democrats who spoke with Banda on condition of anonymity. The following are excerpts from the interview.

Q: When did you join the UDF Young Democrats and what were you told was your role?

A: I joined the youth wing of the United Democratic Front in 1993. At that time the UDF was an opposition pressure group because during the one-party era political parties were outlawed. Our main duty as Young Democrats was to offer security to the UDF leadership. Some of us worked as UDF intelligence gatherers and others as bodyguards.

Q: Were you paid for what you did?

A: We were not paid anything because all we wanted was to ensure that the one-party system should collapse. In some instances we were offered some accommodation and meal allowances when we were travelling.

Q: How tough was your work as Young Democrats when the UDF was in opposition?

A: It was tough work because we had to protect our leaders from the well-trained Malawi Young Pioneers, a paramilitary youth wing of the then-ruling Malawi Congress Party. Our work became easier in December 1993 when the Malawi Army disarmed the Malawi Young Pioneers. Security threats to our leaders became very minimal after that, but we still continued to offer security services to our leaders on a voluntary basis.

Q: What happened when the UDF won the 1994 elections?

A: As the country prepared for the 1994 elections, the UDF chairman and presidential candidate, Bakili Muluzi, promised us that when he wins the elections he would integrate us into the Malawi Army, the Malawi Police Force and the Secret Service.

I wept the day Muluzi was sworn in as president. But those of us who protected him when he was in opposition were pushed aside and paramilitary police and army officers became his bodyguards. It was now impossible for us to talk to Muluzi and his ministers. As time went by some of the educated Young Democrats were incorporated into the newly formed secret service – the National Intelligence Bureau. The rest of us, the uneducated ones, lived by begging money from UDF officials. Years passed.

Q: When did the Young Democrats began beating up opposition leaders?

A: In the run up to 1999 general elections, the UDF Director of Youth [Henry Moyo] used to mobilise the strong ones amongst our groups and advise us to disrupt opposition rallies. He would offer, say, a group of 20 strong young men a vehicle, crates of beer, and MK1000 (US$10) each and advise us to disrupt a rally. After disrupting a rally through the use of violence, he would reward us with another MK1000. This has become the trend up to this time.

This time around when we hear that an opposition party is holding a rally we report to UDF officials. They give us money as incentives for causing political violence and a vehicle to use in the operations.

[Mr. Moyo responds: ‘I don’t send UDF Young Democrats to beat up anybody. I must confess sometimes the Young Democrats beat up opposition leaders and journalists. Those who are beaten are the ones who say bad things about our party National Chairman, Bakili Muluzi. Can you blame the patriotic youth for beating up politicians who have no respect for the president?

Q: What are some of the operations that you have been involved in?

A: I burnt a Landrover belonging to Malawi Congress Party in Chiradzulu District. I took part in the razing down of an office belonging to National Democratic Alliance in Mulanje District. I have beaten up more 15 journalists. Don’t you even know that I was among the people who beat you up at Chileka Airport? This is a wrist watch you wore. (He showed me a wristwatch that was confiscated from me in 2001 by unidentified Young Democrats and both of us laughed.) I have been involved in disrupting more than 50 opposition rallies.

Q: What happens when a Young Democrat makes a mistake?

A: He is severely beaten.

Q: Why is it that you frequently disrupt National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rallies?

A: The NDA knows all the dirty tactics of UDF because its leader, Brown Mpinganjira, was Muluzi’s right-hand man before he was sacked as a senior minister for opposing the president’s bid to seek a third term (which would have required amending the constitution). Mpinganjira vigorously campaigned against it. He is intelligent, powerful and a strategist. The party fears him.

Q: Do you have a political future?

A: I am involved in these atrocities because I am poor and uneducated. I have nothing to do. I worry about my today’s problems and not about the future.

Q: What will you do if UDF loses the May 18 elections?

A: I will defect to the militant wing of the party.