Young democrats or mercenaries?
Since the country attained independence in 1964, Malawian leaders have been touting the children and the youth as future leaders. The collapse of one party regime in 1994 saw the birth of political parties, which set up youth wings within its ranks.
Malawi's ruling United Democratic Front -UDF- has the Young Democrats as its youth wing, which the party's youth director Henry Moyo describes as a nursery for future politicians.
The brutal activities of the UDF Young Democrats contradicts have sparked heated debate over the role of the youth in politics.
As Malawi recently headed into its third multiparty elections on May 20, serial attacks allegedly perpetrated by ruling party youth militias against opposition leaders, human rights activists and journalists cast doubts over the stability and state of democracy in the nation.
Sporadic incidents of political violence - perpetrated by alleged members of the UDF - were at its peak in the country during former President Bakili Muluzi's last two years of power, especially when he and his party zealots campaigned vigorously for the flopped and infamous Third Term Presidential Bill.
The ruthlessness of the UDF Young Democrats during, before and after the Third Term Bill campaign and during pre-election campaign was a source of worry to everyone except for the perpetrators and their sponsors.
The Malawi Human Rights Commission actually warned that rising incidents of the Young Democrats, almost a militant youth wing of the ruling UDF was polarising the country along party and political lines.
Political analysts, furthermore, expressed worry that voters were losing faith in the democratic process.
"Anywhere in the world, elections are not declared free and fair when violence reigns supreme," said Rodgers Newa, chairman of the Malawi Human Rights Consultative Committee.
The victims of Young Democrats’ perpetrated violence ranged from common opposition sympathisers to senior opposition leaders.
In late February for instance, Mary Clara Makungwa, vice president of the opposition National Democratic Alliance, was almost roughed up by a band of the militant youths.
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 Kasungu in central Malawi.
Unfortunately UDF party officials, youth leaders and the police denied claims either of their involvement in or complicity in acts of political terror.
But human rights advocates argued that 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 wingers have been a political fixture, violently disrupting elections in Kenya and Zimbabwe and intimidating political opponents in Ivory Coast and Burundi.
But the problem, which 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 while this country had Malawi Young Pioneers. Five years after Muluzi took power in the 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.
But what do analysts say of political violence? Rafiq Hajat, director of the Institute for Policy Interaction says the violence perpetrated by the UDF Young Democrats demonstrated 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," he said. 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."
One analyst observed: "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 wreaked 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."
Unlike the Green Bombers, Zimbabwe'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.
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. During his reign former President Muluzi 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 once said. "I can't allow that to happen as it would undermine the image of the party”.
But sources claim that party leaders, including Muluzi himself, privately rewarded the Young Democrats after successful operations. Ruling UDF spokesman and Minister of Information 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. He however slams his political colleagues who use violence to gain political mileage. "Politicians who use violence are failures," he says.
Even so, the Malawi Constitution is very silent on the establishment on militias and no legislation exists to either regulate such groups or make them illegal.
After beating up politicians, religious leaders, human rights activists and media practitioners during the Muluzi era, the Young Democrats are in for a big rude awakening during the new administration of President Bingu wa Mutharika.
Mutharika during his campaign trail condemned the acts of violence perpetrated by the Young Democrats charging that he hates youth who smoke marijuana. He promised that once elected instead of sponsoring them to unleash violence to their political opponents, his administration would disburse loans to them.
But as old habits die hard, some Young Democrats are still struggling to justify their existence by pushing themselves to government functions. During this year's Independence Celebrations, most of them wept bitterly when President Mutharika only gave them US$100 to share amongst themselves, when ex-President Muluzi would give them over US$600 during similar functions.
Analysts say the new president should boot out the Young Democrats from the ranks of ruling UDF. "After years of brutally killing, maiming and torturing Malawians, let this militia group be tossed to the dustbin of Malawian history, as the country is on a path to political and economic transformation," says Billy Banda, executive director of Malawi Watch, a human rights group.
Banda charges that it is completely wrong to use the youth to perpetrate politically motivated violence in a democracy. He supports the administration of Mutharika for stopping to sponsor the militant Young Democrats, most of whom are neither young nor democratic