Kukula ndi mwambo: politics, power and youth in Malawi

(Shortened from a longer academic paper) 

Even Dr Banda, who was fond of calling Chiume, Chisiza and Chipembere ‘my boys’, did, in polite moments, call Orton Chirwa ‘Mr Chirwa’.  And, even when he was ill-treating Orton Chirwa, the ‘Mr Chirwa’ sometimes slipped out (Vera Chirwa, 2007, page 74). Orton Chirwa was born in 1919, in contrast to Chiume (1929) and Chipembere (1930). When Chirwa was 39 in 1958, Chipembere was only 28. Dr Banda was then aged 60.

In African politics, thus far, seniority matters and there is no point denying it. Take a look at the current leadership options across Africa, most leaders and potential leaders are aged over sixty. The demographics of Africa give a different picture, the majority of Africans are under 30 (Ashford, 2007).

A Scottish friend once asked me: Why is it difficult to bring on new and younger leaders in Africa when all over the developed world the Cameron (40s), Obama and Merkel (50s) generations are grappling with the issues of power? Is it culture? (Sometimes westerners tend to run to culture to explain most things African!) Of course it is a question that I have been asked by many young Malawians who have debated politics with me. The answer has to be: ‘Well, yes and no!’

Conviction politicians Bakili Muluzi and John Tembo who started politics as youth age

It was partly culture that made Chipembere and others invite Dr Banda to come and lead them. But it was also humility, political naivety and the thought that they did not have the necessary experience. There were other factors of course: they were fighting a formidable colonial system for one. (Cf. Short, 1974; Lwanda 1993 and 2010; Ross, 2009; Power, 2010 and others). The end result was that they set the precedent for political rule by elders in Malawi (Cf. Lwanda, 1993; Forster, 1994; Lwanda, 2006; Ross, 2009; Power 2010). And once the tradition of seniors leading was established there has been no turning back (Cf. MCP Constitution, 1994; UDF Constitution, 1994; Malawi Law Commission, 2006 and others).

Van Dijk (1999) was optimistic in his assessment of the relationship between youth and elders in the ‘democratic’ Malawi political context. I have, and still do, argue (Lwanda, 2006) that money plays a significant limiting factor; essentially, in a country dominated by poverty, the young people’s ideals are easily diluted or even ‘bought’ by money. I also flagged the problems of depending on grants (read donor money) for aspirant western-educated young leaders. However, this political culture of young politicians depending on money handouts has been present from colonial times, surviving through Dr Banda’s rule (many youth leaguers and MYP lived on patronage), Dr Muluzi’s era (brown envelopes and makwacha) to the masikono (milk scones) discourse in Dr Mutharika’s time. Given this dependency, it is no surprise that the politically active and interested youth are often institutionalised and ‘infantilised’ into mere cheer leaders and enforcers (Cf. Swift, 2007).

But the question often not asked is the source of the money. Aside from donor funds, which are self-explanatory and whose ramifications have other trajectories, the fact that the internal funds are from taxes is usually ignored, even by the same aspirant youth keen to fight a ‘corrupt’ system.

But to return to the issue of leadership for the moment: In the MCP, for example, JZU remains, after two decades, the leader and all aspirant youth are promptly seen off, whether it be coincidentally like Raspicious Dzanjalimodzi (Mnelemba, 2006) or by design Chris Daza (Nyasa Times, 2011). The UDF in turn is being shadow contested by ‘founding seniors’ Friday Jumbe, George Ntafu, Cassim Chilumpha and others. The young upstart, Atupele Muluzi, age 33, has just had his marching orders or rather suspension from the party (Nyasa Times, 2011). Once founded, political parties have the same leaders usually till kale kale (the founders retire or die)

Historically, one could argue that all young and youngish upstarts have been seen off by prevailing political systems, whether colonial or postcolonial. John Chilembwe, at around 40 – 44 when he was agitating for black rule, was seen off by the colonial system (Shepperson and Price, 1958). The same system shook when the older Dr Banda came to lead the Nyasaland African Congress, even though the younger leaders were more radical than Dr Banda (Cf. Rotberg, 1965; Short, 1974) and had done most of the work before he came (Cf. Ross, 2009, Power 2010). Yet by 1962, Dr Banda and the Governor General were having tea together while the young Chipembere was languishing in Zomba Prison (Baker, 2008). Chipembere case illustrates the concepts that young radicals often do not reap where they sow: he spent the period between February 1961 to January 1963 in prison (ibid, pages 36 – 58). Dr Banda could have shortened his prison sentence if he had wanted.

In the wake of the Cabinet Crisis (see Baker, 2001, Lwanda 2010) a number of dissident groups came and went. It is interesting to note that, even though Dr Banda had a habit of ‘blaming all manner of things’ on Chiume at public meetings, it was LESOMA (the Socialist League of Malawi) that was one of those that gave Dr Banda most cause to worry, rather than Chiume’s group (Cf. Africa Watch, 1990). LESOMA, led by Attati Mpakati, had a much larger quota of younger members than most Malawi dissident groups. And of all the post Cabinet Crisis dissident groups, second only to Chipembere followers who led the opposition to Dr Banda between 1964 and 1969, LESOMA had the most number of detainees in Banda’s prisons (ibid, page 21). Leaders tend to shout most about ineffective opponents while cracking down hard on the real nuts, so to speak.

Even within the MCP, Dr Banda treated his ‘young favourite’ Aleke Banda (born 1939) no differently. When he heard young Aleke being labelled ‘number 2 man’ in Malawi by a Zambian newspaper, Banda sacked and detained him.

Then there were the students, who included Edge Kanyongolo, Mike Chibwana, Zangaphee Chizeze and McWillie Killion, who were alleged to have established a Marxist Party at Chancellor College (Chavula, 2011) in 1983, and were promptly detained, some at Mikuyu.

One could give many examples in this vein; examples of younger politicians trying to oppose (or in some cases join the system) and coming off worse.

After the democratic transition of 1991 – 1994 this marginalisation from, infantilisation in and restriction within politics of the young was meant to have come to an end; after all the young could critique power (Cf. Chirambo, 2009). But this has not happened. One could contrast this treatment of aspirant political youths with the treatment that has been meted out to older politicians like Zikhale Ngoma, Gwanda Chakuamba, Khumbo Kachali, JZU Tembo, Bakili Muluzi and others when they fall foul of the ruling system. In the case of older politicians, they seem to move effortlessly from one party to the next despite previous insults hurled at their opponents (Cf. Englund, 2002).

There seems to be an unwritten rule that says that older politicians and those in the system ‘respect each other’ and play the ‘political game’. This respect translates as the chameleon like changes in party loyalty by some: one day MCP, next day UDF, mkucha DPP and then afterwards back to MCP. We are so used to this that we hardly bat an eyelid. And if Gwanda ‘seditiously’criticises Mutharika all he would get is a slap on the wrist or a charge by the attorney general which is soon forgotten or retired. On the other hand, any young student or young or youngish civil society leader significantly criticising the ruling polity would face the full force of the instruments of state power (see contemporary press reports).

If an opposition leader calls for the impeachment of an African president, nothing would happen to him. But if young leaders or youth call for change, it is deemed revolutionary (Cf. Contemporary reports of Malawi politics). It is recognised that the politically uncorrupted youth are more likely to mean it. While both can be co-opted or subverted there is a qualitative difference to the co-option: the youth by necessity if not yet wholeheartedly, while elders are merely playing the political chameleon game. Neo-patrimonial leaders always see youth as more potent rivals than ‘burnt out’ opponents: see the way Muluzi dealt with both JZU Tembo and Chakufwa Chihana (van Donge, 1995; Lwanda, 1996).

But it is here perhaps that mwambo is used to infantilise the youth: ndinu ana inu, wait your turn, mudziwa chiani, lemekezani akulu et cetera. A culture change is obviously required if young politicians are ever going to break out of their imprisonment in a system that marginalises or uses them as party fodder or, worse, thugs.

Patronage plays a large part of the equation. Politics brings direct and indirect economic benefits as well as the power to dispose government resources. This power, in a poor country like Malawi, is enough to overcome most ideologies, except that of extremely idealistic youth. Patronage subverts developmental idealism and ideologies.

Senior politicians, in opposition and ruling parties, tend to have a stake in the material aspects of the political economy. Younger ones do not, by and large. This stake holding tends to temper politicians’ politics towards a conservatism that places their priorities more on personal property and commerce than on human rights and development.

In short rulers do not mind their senior opposition colleagues whose materialistic proclivities they are aware of.

And rulers, within varying constraint, are, to a certain extent, tolerant of ‘civil society leadership’ whose ethos tend to be middle class or, in African parlance, elite one. Elites tend to share concerns that translate into a degree of conservatism; elite existence requires stability, solid infrastructure and regular provision of utilities. The elite tend to become disgruntled only if these concerns are frustrated.

But before we get carried away with the so called ‘resurgence of youth in politics’ we need three reminders:

One, sections of youth have always been ‘rebellious and resurgent’. After all Chiume, Chipembere, Chisiza, Aleke Banda and many others were ‘young once’.

Second, even the young grow old. Many definitions of ‘youth are problematic’. Many ‘young democrats or patriots’ are on the wrong side of 37/39 years, the average life expectancy in Malawi. In the case of South Africa, for example, one wonders when Julius Malema will cease to be a ‘youth leaguer’.

Three, it is best to remember that even among the young are to be found selfish, corrupt, crooked and dictatorial politicians. Youth does not always equal sainthood, efficiency and development.

The older politicians will always attempt to run rings around inexperienced youth; sometimes pleasant and sometimes zopweteka (painful lessons).

To succeed in politics politically aspirant youth need to remember that politics is the art of the possible. Like maths, politics has its boundaries and possibilities. It also has its cycles and tides. Ideology, commitment, purity and other positive attributes are not enough. Timing, coordination, cooperation, networking and debate are essential.

There has been a recent increase in voices calling for youth to replace the old guard. While we recognise the ‘old guard’ (Tembo, Chakuamba and others of that ilk) when we see it, the old guard has not been defined. Are older politicians who join politics untainted at 50 – 60 years old guard? It should not be a binary young/old argument but one of character, motives, ideas, ideologies, vocation and efficiency.

There is now a cry that those youth interested in politics should act on their own terms, starting their own parties and avoid becoming party fodder for established politicians. This could be a dangerous argument in danger of sowing seeds for another generation of ‘fathers and founders’ leading parties all the way to 2045!

The more persuasive voices are perhaps those encouraging youngsters to get involved in politics (Cf. Ngwane, 2007 and Wyclef Jean, 2011). Wyclef Jean, formerly of the Fugees, who was prevented from standing for the Haitian presidency states that it is not enough for the youth to sing, shout or tweet for change, they must join politics to enable change.

Ngwane – who gives a rather flexible definition of ‘youth’ which essentially equates to the ‘born frees’ or those born after independence – gives a solid definition of democracy but muddies the water by trying to equate democracy with ‘pan-Africanism’. But many of his arguments should be read by aspirant young politicians. The fact that he cites young Ghadafi as a political hero should be a reminder to any young politician that the young do grow old, sometimes into tyrants.

The nature of this political involvement by youth is not defined. As previously stated youth have traditionally been political fodder, political thugs and political praise singers. Any initial ideological developmental aims of the youth movements allied to mainstream parties have tended to evaporate within months. As political fodder they form the muscular components of the ruling parties, often blessed with ironic names such as ‘young patriots’, ‘young democrats’, young pioneers’ and so on. Avoiding these is a good starting point. Young politicians must get into positions of influence and power within their parties. As everyone knows, this is perhaps the critical element that has paralysed the MCP, and to a lesser extent, the UDF. Political parties need constant refreshment. If one looks at the Conservative, Labour (UK) or Republican and Democratic (USA) parties one is struck by the way new blood has refreshed them.

Young politicians, like their older appear not to learn from history: they re-invent the wheel; they eschew independent of non-partisan advisers; they exploit the same political culture laid down by older politicians for their rallies (dancers, mbumba); they prefer the glamorous aspects of politics, leaving the powerful and influential roles to older politicians; they quickly become dependent on older politicians for funding, they… repeat the mistakes of old.

The simple advice is to get involved in the party of your choice, on that articulates your ideals and ideology, at influential, active, powerful, meaningful levels. This involvement should include possibility for vertical advancement without impediment due to age or culture. Of course if there are no parties that permit debate, democracy or development then one may consider forming one’s own party. But if you are going for a party that strives for  purity, efficiency and a corrupt free political culture then be careful who you go into politics with.


Africa Watch.  1990 Where silence rules: the suppression of dissent in Malawi . London : Africa Watch.

Ashford, L. S. (2007). Africa’s youthful population: Risk or opportunity? Accessed at ttp://www.prb.org/pdf07/africayouth.pdf

Chavula, J. ‘Inspirational dramatist’ accessed at http://www.nationmw.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=11325:fidelis-edge-kanyongolo-inspirational-dramatist&catid=48:the-legends&Itemid=48

Dijk, R. Van. ‘Pentecostalism, gerontocratic rule and democratization in Malawi: the changing position of the young in political culture’ accessed at https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/9698

Lwanda, J. 2006.Kwacha: the violence of money in Malawi ’s politics 1954 – 2004’ at http://www.jstor.org/pss/25065121

Ngwane, G. ‘Youths and democracy’ accessed at http://www.gngwane.com/2007/02/youths_and_demo.html

Swift, R. 2007 ‘Dumbing down democracy’ Accessed at http://www.newint.org/features/2007/10/01/keynote/


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