Revisiting and rebranding Malawi Young Pioneers

The Malawi Young Pioneers Movement, which unfortunately became a terror militia to prop up the Banda regime, should be revisited by the Malawi government with the goal of involving youth in the county’s development

Malawian youth currently comprise a sizable 60 percent in a population of 14 million people. This means that more than half of Malawi is under the age 25. The youth represent a large, underutilized human resource that can impact Malawian development. They also represent a population who if neglected will be a detriment to development. Therefore their participation in the country’s development is pertinent for its future. In the past, the MYP, an affiliate of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP), engaged the youth through a national youth service program. The original purpose of the MYP was to engage the youth in carrying out voluntary activities for Malawi’s development. However, they also functioned as a militia group and intelligentsia network for President Banda.

The MYP carried out various economic activities that positively impacted socio-economic development. When the MYP disbanded in 1994, it left many of the youth idle, without a sense of purpose and direction. It also left many of them unemployed with few opportunities on the horizon. Since then, Malawi has not had a comparable comprehensive national youth service program in terms of scope, size, funding, pragmatism, or robustness. The Malawian government should revisit the original idea behind the MYP program, with the aim of reviving its productive tenets for the country’s development.

Members of the defunct MYP
Members of the defunct MYP

Malawi’s youth remain a generation at risk of entrenchment in poverty. This is a precarious situation for any nation. Malawi currently has a large population of youth that are out of school and idle. There are few opportunities for youth development in Malawi that equip them with the education and training to become independent, economically secure adult citizens. The youth are faced with growing challenges in the country such as unemployment, underemployment, poverty, limited vocational training facilities, limited prospects for post-secondary training and a high population growth rate. Although these are not problems that are easily solved, they are not challenges that are insurmountable. The introduction of a national youth service that is comparable in scope, size and modeled after the MYP movement would begin to address some of these challenges.


A National Youth Policy was created in the 1995 to address the youth problems together with the National Youth Council of Malawi (NYCOM). NYCOM has been successful in empowering the youth. It introduced the Youth Development Plan of Action (YDEVPA) and has seen the registration of 131 youth-oriented NGOs. Although there is a plethora of these NGOs, few are functional or efficient. The creation of a National Youth Policy also raised the profile of youth. However, it is currently outdated and has been under review by the cabinet for nearly five years. Therefore, many of the existing programs and services for out of school youth can’t adequately meet the current demands of youth. Changes in programs for youths need to account for variables such as a changing political economy, urbanization, advances in technology and the behavioural changes in Malawi’s youth from the breakdown of traditional culture in a new globalised world. It is therefore important for a national youth service program to be implemented that reflects Malawi’s current reality. It is also important that it is adaptable so that it can continue to meet future challenges of the youth.

There have been initiatives proposed by the current Joyce Banda’s People’s Party administration to meet some of the challenges that the youth service program used to meet. There has been a proposal to reintroduce National Youth Week, a week where the MYP and other youth organizations volunteered to work on national projects. It gave MYP youth an opportunity to showcase the skills they learnt from MYP training initiative. The current administration has also set out to rehabilitate some of the former MYP training bases and turn them in to vocational training centers. There have also been plans to set up a development bank to provide loans for the youth. More recently, the administration unveiled a plan to send thousands of Malawian youth to South Korea for apprenticeships. However, this has been highly controversial due to concerns about issues such as abuse of labor rights. Whilst these initiatives may be beneficial for Malawian youth, they appear to be isolated projects and not an integrated part of a national youth service program.

According to reports from the Minister for Youth and Sport, Enoch Chihana, the administration has been talking about implementing a National Youth Service Program to address skills development in areas such as carpentry, mechanics, agriculture and IT. However, there are few details about the nature, scope and timeline of this plan. Despite of the MYPs problematic history, Malawi can draw lessons from its former youth service plan.


The MYP was a youth wing that was established by President Kamuzu Hastings Banda in 1963. It was modeled after the Ghana Young Pioneers and the National Service Brigade of Israel. Its main aim was to train rural youth with various skills so that they could “spearhead” the country’s development. The MYP played a major role in the socio-economic development of Malawi, particularly, in agricultural activities. The Department of Youth together with the MYP offered Agricultural Science, Technical and Vocational Education for out of school youth or drop-outs. The MYP trained a significant number of youth who ended up joining the civil service, private sector or Armed Forces. They were extremely loyal to Banda and were indoctrinated in ‘Kamuzuism’. That is, they saw Banda as the Father and Founder of the nation, and the Ngwazi (conqueror). They believed Banda was the only one capable of leading the country. Due to their loyalty, they increasingly received preferential treatment from Banda. By 1965, the MYP had turned in to a paramilitary group which functioned primarily to keep Banda’s autocracy intact. They were given extrajudicial powers, including the power to arrest, which caused tension with the police and army.

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, the Young Pioneers received military, intelligence and espionage training in Taiwan and Israel. According to Chirwa (1994), they also received scholarships for “technical studies” in Denmark, West Germany, United States and Britain. Although receiving arms from China for “training purposes” only, Banda also made claims that he wanted to discourage dissidents and communists. This support came at a time when Banda was increasingly becoming autocratic. By the 1980s the MYP operated as a parallel security system above the Army and police.

At the height of Banda’s rule, MYP became a terror group to the public and were used to enforce Banda’s rule. MYP infiltrated every aspect of Malawian life by creating an intricate network of informants. This ranged from lecturers, administrator, university students, cleaners, messengers, watchmen, office personnel, garden boys, barmaids, or bartenders that were encouraged to report any detractors to them. Those that were against Banda would be detained, beaten, maimed, killed or forced into exile. Members of the public who didn’t have party membership cards were denied access to public services such as buses, health clinics or public transportation. They were used as an instrument of voter intimidation against multi-party advocates during the 1993 referendum. After the country voted for multi-party rule, Banda stepped down, and the MYP were disbanded by the Malawi Army in a covert overnight mission called “Operation Bwezani”. Malawi went on to conduct peaceful elections in 1994.


The MYP left a negative and lasting legacy on the mindset of Malawians. Although the MYP developed into a destructive force for the nation, the original idea behind the youth movement was benign. When they began to function as the feared milita group that propped Banda’s dictatorship, their mandate for development was forgotten by them and the public. According to historian Richard Mkandawire (2008), “Under Banda’s regime, the young pioneers, whom it was believed were carrying out voluntary work, became extremely unpopular among the general population for their sometimes ruthless and coercive manner in mobilizing local communities for development goals and supporting the ruling party.” As a result, they remain entrenched in Malawi’s history as a public terror group.

They also left other marks on Malawi. Since their disbandment, the idea of reviving the MYP has received mixed reactions. Banda’s successor, Bakili Muluzi branded this type of public service Thangata, a reference to free, unreciprocated labor experienced under colonialism. Therefore, funding for such social programs became limited. NGOs began to fill in much of the work previously undertaken by MYP. Another mark was the blurring of lines between youth leagues (although they worked closely with the MCP Youth League, MYP was separate) and youth mercenaries. In subsequent administrations, Muluzi’s United Democratic Front (UDF) formed the Young Democrats and Bingu wa Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) formed the Young Cadets. Although these groups do not have as much clout as the MYP, their role has been to terrorize the public (particularly, political opponents) through violence and intimidation. There continues to be a tendency to use idle youth as instruments of terror in ruling parties, instead of encouraging their political participation in decision making within the parties.

There is evidence that some of their legacy is fading. Recently, attitudes towards the MYP concept are changing. In 2012, Youth Consultative Forum publicly called for the government to start a national youth service similar to the MYP. This is perhaps a reflection of a youth that is borrowing from the past either out of necessity, nostalgia or pragmatism. It may also be a reflection of the passage of time. The MYP was disbanded almost twenty years ago; hence, most Malawians under 25 years of age did not experience the MYP era. However, these new calls do indicate that the youth wants to be engaged in the development process.

The youth in Malawi have always been at the foreground of transformation in the country. As an example, their participation was instrumental in protests against one-party rule and in more recent protests against Mutharika’s repression. They have earned a right to participate in shaping Malawian society as productive citizens. Yet, despite their contributions, the youth sector has remained an underdeveloped and undermined sector. Given their record of participation in shaping important events in the county’s past, there needs to be a more tangible plan for their continued participation in the future by the current administration.

So far, the current Joyce Banda administration appears to have strayed away from the practice of using youth to commit public terror. However, as Malawi prepares for elections in 2014, the youth across parties may once again become political pawns.


The concept of MYP was for the group to participate in national development. They largely targeted the rural poor so that they would have opportunities to lift themselves out of poverty. In order to achieve this, the MYP established training bases throughout the country. By 1989 there were MYP training bases in each of the country’s 24 districts. By the 1994, there were 6,000 MYPs and about 45,000 in the MYP reserves. The program effectively trained a large number of idle youth to become productive citizens.

Under the program, youths trained for approximately 10 months. They received a multi-faceted curriculum including political education, physical education and rural development. A large part of it involved agricultural work including farming and keeping livestock. Malawi was an agricultural based economy under Banda. Therefore, their work complimented the national development policy. When the program was completed, students were equipped to enter the public or private sector. Most students participated in economic and development activities in their communities. They were given the tools they needed to set up their own business in vocations like carpentering, bricklaying, and welding. Select students furthered their education by attending Salima Technical College. During the National Youth Week, MYP, Youth Leaguers and students, would hold parades, demonstrate their skills and highlight the contribution they were making to national development.

The program had the affect of teaching youth the values of hard work, self-reliance and self-determination. It taught them leadership skills and molded students in to responsible citizens who took responsibility for the country. Youth coming out of the program had a sense of purpose and self-worth. At national level, MYP contributed towards food security and state security. Unfortunately for Malawi, this system only lasted a few years as the MYP was hijacked by politics and ‘Kamuzuism’. However, it should have been disarmed but not disbanded.


Malawi can benefit from a new national youth service program similar to MYP. The basic development-focused tenets of the program should be reviewed and revived with adaptation where necessary. The new MYP movement should be a demilitarized albeit providing a good stepping stone for those wanting to join the army after the program. It should also be depoliticized and not have any party affiliation – recruitment should be transparent and non-partisan. The basic organizational structure of the program should be similar to the MYP. They should have offices in each district so that it is accessible to all youth. It should also be institutionalized and centrally organized for consistency, but retain enough autonomy to allow each district to manage certain activities such as creating a budget, daily management, setting district-specific goals, and determining the needs of its youth. This can be done through the Ministry of Youth or it may be best served as a public-private partnership.

Similar to the MYP, its emphasis should be on uplifting the rural population, who make up the majority of the youth. However, the program should also target the urban youth. Its core curriculum should be modeled after the MYPs focus on vocational skills training in areas like agriculture, welding etc. However it should expand its training or class offerings to include subjects like tailoring/’dress-making’, design, nutrition, cooking, civics, basic law, computers and basic literacy. It should also continue to include merit-based scholarships for exemplary students to attend technical college, enter the Malawi university system or receive scholarships abroad. Similar to the MYP, students should be given the opportunity to affect their communities. They should be given the tools to start their own businesses or SMEs in their local areas. As a result of the program, they should gain preferential access to services such as government jobs and services such as the proposed Development Bank which is being set up to empower the youth through issuing loans. In order to achieve this, the students should earn a certificate indicating that they have completed the National Youth Service Program. Recognized accreditation for would be a valuable assets that they use to access future loans, employment, and education. The program duration should be one year but a two year option should be considered.

Although the new program should draw on the MYP, it should be re-branded. This includes giving it a new ‘pioneer’-free name. Instead of indoctrinating the youth on Malawi’s cornerstone slogan of ‘Unity, Loyalty, Obedience, Discipline’ like the MYP, it may emphasize values that resonate with contemporary youth such ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, ‘peace’, and ‘inclusion’! It should also redefine the term national service by reclaiming the original definition, of thangata, ‘moral obligation’ which is a reference to something that is mutually beneficial. In this light, the program does also need to benefit the youth so that they gain real opportunity to lift themselves out of their economic circumstances whilst serving the country. The program should target long-term volunteers but should pay students a stipend or allowance so that they can meet their daily needs. It should also make a provision for uncompensated short-term volunteer positions so that the program fosters the spirit of volunteerism. Although the Malawi government may not have all the resources to meet the demands of all of Malawi’s development woes, the government can enact a program for its underutilized human capital as a resource for development and nation building.


Malawi has had a long history of volunteerism and service. Despite narratives about absence of volunteerism and the sense of civic duty, both are wide-spread in Malawi, albeit largely undocumented. Therefore, the potential for engaging Malawi’s youth is realistic and pragmatic. Malawi has had a strong tradition of youth-led volunteerism and participation in development, in part due to the MYP movement. Yet, much like the Ghana Young Pioneers, The Zambia National Youth Service, and the Boys Brigades of Botswana, organizations like MYP often resort to using idle youth as instruments of political control. As Malawi prepares for elections in 2014, the youth should not continue to be undermined. They Malawi have the potential to make a real impact on the country’s development. However, long-term programs are needed to ensure their success so that they can become productive citizens. Revisiting the MYP program provides Malawi with a viable blueprint that it can use in the creation of a national youth program geared towards development.

* Sitinga Kachipande is a scholar in Pan African Studies and a blogger. She is currently a Research and Communication intern at TransAfrica. Views expressed are her own.


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