Special Feature: In Placid Malawi, Shades of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe

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

Political violence by ruling party youth militias threatens credibility of upcoming elections.

It has a reputation for being as calm as the lake that bears its name, but as Malawi heads into its third multiparty presidential and parliamentary elections in May, serial attacks allegedly perpetrated by ruling party youth militias against opposition leaders and journalists cast doubts over the stability of the sliver-shaped central African country.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission has warned that rising incidents of pre-election violence by the Young Democrats, the militant youth wing of the ruling United Democratic Front, is polarising the country along ethnic and regional lines. Political analysts, furthermore, worry that voters are losing faith in the democratic process. The upcoming vote marks the second consecutive poll to be marred by ruling-party violence.

‘Anywhere in the world, elections are not declared free and fair when violence reigns supreme,’ said Rodgers Newa, chairman of the Human Rights Consultative Committee in Malawi.

Scheduled for May 18 at the time eAfrica went to press, the elections should present Malawians with an open choice. Having failed in his bid to change the constitution to seek a third term, President Bakili Muluzi must retire. Divisions among the opposition notwithstanding, few expect much of a contest.

In late February, Mary Clara Makungwa, vice president of the opposition National Democratic Alliance, was beaten by a band of youths in Makungwa in central Malawi. Her vehicle was set ablaze. Another politician, Kizito Ngwembe, a member of parliament for the opposition Malawi Congress Party, was assaulted by youths while addressing a rally in the district of Kasungu.

Party officials, youth leaders and the police deny claims either of their involvement or complicity in acts of political terror.

But human rights advocates say the violence reflects one of the most troubling and unresolved elements of party politics in Africa: the use of youth squads to perpetuate power and prevent the free contestation of elections.

Since the early 1990s, when multiparty politics began to spread across Africa, militant ruling party youth wings have been a political fixture, violently disrupting elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe and intimidating political opponents in Coté d’Ivoire and Burundi. But Nixon Khembo, a political scientist at the University of Malawi, describes the trend as a gross abuse of youth volunteerism by political parties, reaches back to the earliest years of independence. Botswana had its Boy Brigades, Zambia its National Youth Service.

Even where regimes have changed, practices haven’t. Dr. Kamuzu Hastings Banda, Malawi’s erstwhile despot, employed the Malawi Young Pioneers to intimidate budding opposition movements. Five years after Muluzi took power in Malawi’s first multiparty elections, the UDF was doing the same. Violence by the Young Democrats during the 1999 elections was well chronicled and has been a mainstay ever since.

During a parliamentary by-election in Blantrye in 2001, for example, UDF supporters attempted to disrupt a campaign rally that was to be addressed by Gwanda Chakuamba, leader of the opposition Malawi Congress Party. In the ensuing chaos, the machete wielding youths accidentally knifed one of their own, Duncan Kanjuchi, killing him on the spot.

The UDF claimed Kanjuchi was a member of the ruling party and that opposition supporters had beaten him to death. Chakuamba countered that Kanjuchi was mistakenly beaten by Young Democrats. The police arrested six MCP supporters, all of whom were ultimately acquitted.

As the May elections near, such incidents have increased. Rafiq Hajat, director of the Institute for Policy Interaction in Malawi, says the violence perpetrated by the UDF Young Democrats demonstrates the fragility of newly democratised countries. ‘It is a continuation perhaps of the ignorance that is prevalent regarding the role of the youth wings of political parties,’ he said. ‘The Young Democrats are certainly a threat to the democratisation process, of which elections are a crucial part.’

In a report entitled ‘Taking Root: Violence and Intimidation in Malawi,’ the Voice of Micah, a political think tank based in Balaka, argued that the Young Democrats operated with the blessings of the UDF leadership.

‘There have been reports that, in certain cases cars supplied by the UDF cadres have been used in the execution of the acts of violence by the Young Democrats,’ the report states. ‘Therefore it can not be doubted that these people act with full knowledge and mandate of party leaders.’

It adds: ‘It appears the UDF is gradually pulling one leaf after the other from the tactics of the Zanu-PF of Robert Mugabe. While Mugabe boasts of the political exploits of the war veterans, which have reigned havoc for some time now, bringing to its knees one of the strongest economies in this part of Africa, the UDF with its Young Democrats is bringing to its knees one of the most stable and peace loving people.’

The violence is accompanied by a second phenomenon: the appearance of police complicity.

Following her attack in February, opposition leader Mary Makungwa took the matter to the police. Upon filing a complaint she was jailed for 48 hours without explanation. Deputy Police Spokesman Kelvin Maigwa disputes Makungwa’s claim of unlawful detention. ‘The police are allowed by law to summon any citizen to question him or her on any issue when they are carrying out investigations,’ he said.

Ngwembe, the opposition member of parliament, alleges that he was beaten by UDF youth a second time as he tried to report the initial assault to the police. Eyewitnesses corroborate the claim.

One police officer, speaking on condition of strict anonymity, said any officer who dares to interfere in the operations of the UDF Young Democrats can easily lose his job. ‘First of all they transfer you to a police post in a remote area and once you make a mistake, you immediately lose your job,’ he said, speaking near the Kasungu police station, where he is posted.

Another officer, also speaking anonymously, said when alleged victims of the Young Democrats report the incidents to police, top UDF members and some members of the National Intelligence Bureau (NIB) pressurise the police officers to destroy files of such cases.

‘The problem is that at every police station there is a member of NIB, and these intelligence officers in a sense work as loyal servants of the ruling party, so every police officer who opposes their informal instructions is treated as a supporter of the opposition,’ he said.

‘If this continues,’ Hajat warns, ‘we might face massive upheavals, because when the public lose faith in officers of the law, then they start disregarding the law itself.’ He cited an incident in February when police fired shots during an opposition rally at Njamba Freedom Park in Blantyre, wounding two people.

Party Organisation

Unlike the Green Bombers, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s youth militias, the UDF Young Democrats don’t have torture camps or training facilities. They operate from their homes and have committees at the national, regional, district and constituency levels.

According to UDF deputy publicity secretary Mary Kaphwereza Banda, there are party youth chapters in all of Malawi’s 28 districts and 193 constituencies. They report to either district or constituency coordinators. Banda insists that, unlike the forcibly conscripted Green Bombers, the Young Democrats are voluntary.

The UDF party constitution does not define the Young Democrats’ role. It merely states that the duties of the national director of youth affairs shall include ‘coordinating the activities of the youth, mobilising the youth for the purposes of strengthening the party and looking after the affairs of the youth.’

The UDF officially condemns violence. President Muluzi has personally implored the militant youth to refrain from perpetrating violence. ‘I am not the one who instructs the Young Democrats to cause any alleged violence,’ he has said. ‘I cannot allow that to happen as it would undermine the image of the party.’

But Ngeyi Kanyongolo, a human rights lawyer and law professor at the University of Malawi, claims that party leaders, including Muluzi himself, privately reward the Young Democrats after successful operations.

UDF spokesman Ken Lipenga said the party officially does not sanction the use of violence, but admits the Young Democrats have at one time or the other been involved in violent acts. ‘It is common knowledge that some UDF politicians have used the boys to perpetrate violence,’ he said in a surprisingly frank admission. ‘Just recently some of our own boys were used to disrupt our own party primary elections. Politicians who use violence are failures or believe that they will fail in the elections.’

UDF National Director of Youth Henry Moyo vehemently rebuffs such claims: ‘The UDF Young Democrats are disciplined. Their main duty is to mobilise fellow youths in development activities.’

History of political violence

Although Malawi has a peaceful reputation compared to other Southern Africa nations, its people suffered in silence from intimidation, threats, abductions and killings for three decades under the autocratic rule of Hastings Kamuzu Banda and his Malawi Congress Party. Under the late dictator, the red-shirted Malawi Young Pioneers, a youth paramilitary group, were infamous for political violence.

Banda established the Young Pioneers in 1963, the year the country gained independence. Modelled after Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers in Ghana and the National Service Brigade in Israel, they were originally conceived as a means for mobilising the youth in national development causes.

In the early years of their existence, the Young Pioneers were mainly concerned with rural development work and political indoctrination. The Pioneers were indoctrinated to believe in Kamuzuism, Banda’s political philosophy of unity, obedience, loyalty and discipline.

‘I organised the Young Pioneers so that the youth would make useful citizens of the country,’ Banda told a rally in Lilongwe in 1975. ‘I did not want our youth to roam the streets of Zomba, Blantyre, and Lilongwe, loafing with their hands in their pockets.’

But with the passage of time, the role of the Young Pioneers evolved. ‘The MYPs added a security role to their range of responsibilities, and gradually became competitors in this regard vis-à-vis the formal security organs of state in the form of the police and the army,’ said Kings Phiri, a professor at the University of Malawi. ‘Their training for this role involved physical exercises and drill, the use of small arms, and the gathering and analysis of intelligence reports.’

By the early 1970s, Banda was using the Young Pioneers to kill, expel and deport members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were refusing to buy Malawi Congress Party membership cards because of their religious beliefs. Sources within the Malawi Army say Banda also used the Young Pioneers to torture his opponents, and also dispatched them to support the Mozambican rebel group Renamo in the 1980s.

The end came in December 1993, when members of the Young Pioneers got into a brawl with Malawi Army soldiers at the Moyale Barracks in the northern city of Mzuzu. In the fracas, the overzealous Young Pioneers shot dead two Malawi army soldiers. In retaliation, gangs of off-duty soldiers went on the rampage.

According to a senior army officer speaking on condition of anonymity, the Army determined to completely disarm and dismantle the Young Pioneers. Soldiers traversed the country, demolishing Young Pioneer bases and establishments. That purge also heralded the defeat of the Malawi Congress Party, which lost elections to the UDF in 1994.

That poll, the country’s first democratic elections, was peaceful. But party political violence began to rear its head once again as the country moved toward its second multiparty poll five years later.

Political commentators now say there is no marked difference between Banda’s Young Pioneers and the UDF’s Young Democrats. Some of the latter were once members of the former. But unlike Banda’s Young Pioneers, which was established by an act of parliament, the Young Democrats are not part of the government machinery.

Even so, the Malawi Constitution is very silent on the establishment of militias and no legislation exists to either regulate such groups or make them illegal.

Regional implications

Violence flared around Muluzi’s bid to change the constitution early last year to seek a third term. According to Vera Chirwa, a human rights lawyer, the Young Democrats were responsible for several atrocities. At one point, she said, they assaulted Anglican Bishop James Tengatenga for speaking against Muluzi’s bid. On another occasion, they attacked the president of the civil society Movement for Genuine Democracy just 200 metres outside Parliament for his vocal opposition against the proposed Third Term Bill.

Chirwa, who runs the Malawi Centre for Advice, Research, Education and Rehabilitation, charges that it is a mockery of human rights for Muluzi to be involved in mediating peace talks in Zimbabwe when he is failing to control the Young Democrats.

‘It is very difficult for African leaders to take tough action against Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe because they are in the same boat of wishing to stay in power for a long time,’ she said. ‘Just imagine, over 20 MPs were assaulted by the Young Democrats as the UDF campaigned for Muluzi’s third-term bid. How can the same Muluzi tell Mugabe to step down from power? How can he tell Mugabe to advise the Green Bombers to refrain from violence when the UDF Young Democrats are doing the same?’

Chirwa, who along with her husband were once imprisoned for opposing Banda, argues that current instruments set by the African Union, Southern Africa Development Community and Nepad do not adequately address the problem of political abuses: ‘African leaders who rig elections are hailed by their comrades and some autocratic leaders are elected chairpersons of these regional and continental bodies.’

22 Apr 2004