The Tight Lid on Youth Participation in Malawi and the Unclamping Power of Politics
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
Published in the author's personal capacity.
“I leave everything to the young men. You’ve got to give youthful men authority and responsibility if you’re going to build up an organization. Otherwise you’ll always be the boss yourself and you won’t leave anything behind you.” ~ A.P. Giannini, founder of Bank of America.
Malawi joined the international community in observing International Youth Day (12 August) on 9 August 2016. In an address that launched a manifesto called Timvereni (Hear Us), the youth had one thing to ask of the Government of Malawi: the space for youths to contribute towards Malawi’s development. Shocking was how the plea for basic recognition of youths in nation building was so overdue. At this pace, one only dreads a Malawi facing the test to make effective strides for attaining targets in the Africa Agenda 2063 and the global goals couched under the sustainable development framework of the 2030 Agenda.
I note that the convergence of youth and development has never been more on the discussion table than during our time. The echoes from Kofi Annan’s passion for national investment in the youth could never be more resonant with the search for solutions to vices that grip socio-economic and environmental development in our 21st century world. Yet, the youth are redefining business ethics and challenging cultural norms in ways that anti-progressives get persuaded to rethink the old ways that keep tying the world down to a halt. In September 2011, under the motto ‘We are the 99%,’ the youth of the United States of America led an unprecedented revolution in the Occupy Wall Street campaign that has drawn, into the league of not-to-be-ignored issues, attention towards fairer income redistribution in the world’s largest economy. In Tunisia and Egypt, the youth have challenged stubborn cultural norms to fight for improved human rights and better economic conditions during the Arab Spring.
In Malawi, the youth are best known for being the Youth League, Malawi Young Pioneers, DPP Youth, Orange Partners’ Movement or Young Democrats, etc., all hardly associated with enlightenment, and seemingly interested in promoting politics of intolerance.
Almost two in five Malawians are between the ages of 10 and 29, and more than two thirds of the country’s 16.4 million people are under the age of 30, a good 65% of the population being profiled as youthful. Although the second Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS II) recognizes the leverage that the youthful population characterizing Malawi could have on the development process, the youth remain invisible in the active development space. The 2015 National Human development Report by the United Nations Development Programme shares the same perspective. But, the manipulative hand of politics, instead, has busied the youth with hollow tasks, including to form very loud and aggressive youth wings of political parties (some examples mentioned above) that have excelled more at demonstrating hooliganism than progressive talent.
In spite of its articulation in the MGDS II, the youth question remains vague. For starters, it is more confusing to define who a youth is in Malawi that it is a matter more fit for putting to rest than pursuing. This ambiguity makes it hard to delineate when one graduates into adulthood. This, in itself, hinders the nation from according full recognition and prominence to the youth question. Ultimately, the youth have become the most ignored constituency despite its centrality to development – the youth are slowly disappearing as the leaders of tomorrow. The consequent result is the underrepresentation of the youth and their lack of voice in their active citizenry for development.
The African malaise of poor leadership, corruption, rights violations and poverty, among others, creates a complex structural base that hinders effective youth participation in governance in Malawi. Yet, the political system benefits from this large population as an important decider in national elections.
As I edge out of my youth, I am baffled by how much our negligence of the youth is deliberately designed by the leadership to inhibit youth participation. The system restricts role modelling and mentoring, leaving the youth with no options but to elect out of the development discourse. The prevailing attitude among the youth shares the normalcy of having leadership issues as the exclusive purview of the aging segment of the population in all spheres of public life, including the home, religious institutions, politics, and the work place. Of course, schools and universities are the only institutions where the virtue of mandate demands the high subscription of the youth to participate.
It is no mystery, then, that Malawi risks ending up having no astute leadership in its future to steer its much-needed progress. It is a nation in the process of manufacturing spectators of development than future actors in governance and politics. Upon scrutiny, it is quite clear that Malawi’s young people are only good in as far as the MGDS II looks thoughtful and inclusive. However, studies continue to indicate that superficial investments in the youth are more likely to create a burden for the country, particularly in promotion of a shallow-minded nation in its future. And the country’s leaders seem content with maintaining the status quo.
The Election Game – Divide and Rule
As hinted above, the relevance of the youth is more visible during election and political campaigns. Worrisome is how limitations of the youth constrain their understanding of the ideologies behind political parties, where one is lucky to find any. With no visioning for the youth in the political philosophies of the main political parties in Malawi, the youth are left wandering about the political space as loud empty tins scrubbing each other. This is how they have fallen prey to divisions brought by those that take advantage of poverty, tribalism and regionalism.
The recent fee hike case at the University of Malawi is one illustration. The youth did not have the ability to establish common ground in their vision to restrict university fees to affordable levels. The divisions within the youth movement were exploitable, whose only end now prohibits some bright young Malawians from continuing with tertiary education, if not committing many parents to credit that will be painfully amortized for periods beyond the foreseeable future.
The youth of Malawi lack proper patronage compared to youth movements in developed countries, like those driving Occupy Wall Street, where they are critical agents of change. Again, politicians have succeeded in indoctrinating their minds into being backbenchers and picking up the crumbs after them. This deplorable phenomenon is one of the major causes for the deteriorating state of Malawi’s development.
The Picture of Transformational Leadership
I am convinced that the youth should be allowed to fully participate, at every level, in shaping development. This, however, requires courageous political leadership that is not just visionary but one that is willing to have its youth as part of the solution. It is only a daring leadership that sheds off the dark ways of the past, combined with an ambition to unify the nation, that will ensure youth participation in sorting out Malawi’s afflictions with poverty.
Malawi is assured to remain poor if its youth are sideliners in development. The youth need to be placed appropriately as building blocks of the nation, occupying a central place for sustainable progress across every aspect of national development planning. Countries that integrate their youth in national processes manifest better development. The energy and fresh intelligence of the youth act as torches for a nation. On the contrary, failure to bring the youth on board leads to high levels of youth unemployment. And in Malawi, the available outlets have been in small but high-cost businesses and vulnerability to international human trafficking.
I propose that all manner of politicians in Malawi strive to build transformative policies, including those that make young women visible, and convene on putting the youth first. I further propose that we need to salvage the plight of the youth by establishing an open dialogue for youth engagement, putting the Ministry responsible to some good use, for once. A vibrant youth engagement policy will not be attained and will remain underestimated as long as it is not a priority for any and upcoming administrations.
Finally, deliberate and impartial efforts to provide the best education for Malawi’s young should be a foregone conclusion so they are capacitated to grasp various debates with political but also technical competence. Opening up to these priorities will expand the space for youth participation in sound leadership of Malawi.
The day we stop motivating manifestos as Timvereni is the day we will have triumphed.