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 Vol. 1, No. 1, March 2000, ISSN 1563-4019

A Case of Revolutionary Change in Contemporary Malawi: The Malawi Army and the Disarming of the Malawi Young Pioneers

Kings M. Phiri
Professor of History, Chancellor College, University of Malawi

Journal of Peace, Conflict and Military Studies

Operation Bwezani (Operation Return All), the coded name by which the Malawi Army's crack on the Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP) went, dominated the mass media in Malawi at the height of the democratic transition late in 1993 and early 1994. Scholarly observers immediately gave the event the attention it deserved: as the military, contribution to the destruction of President Hastings Kamuzu Banda's repressive apparatus and the country's democratisation in general,1 and as marking a significant phase in the development of the Malawi Army.2

Indeed, this writer agrees that through its dismantling of the most repressive instrument Dr Banda had at his disposal during his thirty-year rule, the Army played a crucial role in Malawi's democratisation. In the same vein, there can be no doubt that for an army that traditionally maintained a 'detached loyalty to the existing regime', Operation Bwezani was, evolutionary speaking, a major turning point. These critical points raised by previous writers, notwithstanding, there is still a need to analytically present Operation Bwezani as the culmination of a historical dialectic between the three major actors that were involved: the Army, the Young Pioneers, and the Political System.

This article thus purports to present a more historical contextualised interpretation of the Malawi Army's demolition of the Malawi Young Pioneers at the end of 1993, which takes into account the development of, and past relations between the Malawi Army, the Malawi Young Pioneers, and the Malawi Political System. In the process, it highlights some of the past operations, open and convert, in which the Young Pioneers were involved, which made the Army's war against them inevitable and their destruction such a popular experience for most Malawians.

The Malawi Army and the Malawi Young Pioneers
At the time of Malawi's independence from Britain in 1964, the Malawi Army, an inheritance from the colonial era, was a one battalion fighting force with just over 2,000 soldiers confined to Cobbe Barracks in Zomba in the southern part of the country. The Commanding Officer was a British expatriate, Brigadier Timothy Lewis, a long-time confidant of Dr Banda, the first nationalist head of state. Though small in size, it was a highly professional force, having distinguished itself in several campaigns in Africa and abroad during World War Two, and in counter-insurgency operations in Malaya in the 1950s.3

In the decade of independence, it continued to maintain its professional stance, by sticking to high recruitment and training standards and confirming itself to faithfully serving the government of the day. To this effect, it crushed the Chipembere Insurrection in Mangochi and Machinga districts in 1965, and the Yatuta Chisiza Invasion of Mwanza district from Tanzania in 1967.4

The 1970s witnessed rapid expansion of the force and the Africanisation of its command structure. Among other things, General Graciano Matewere was appointed the first Malawian Commanding Officer in 1972. This was followed by the commissioning, in the mid-1970s, of a second Battalion for the Kamuzu Barracks that were constructed in Lilongwe. By 1980, a third Batallion was being recruited for Moyale Barracks in the northern city of Mzuzu. At the time of the democratic transition in 1972, the force had attained a total strength of 8,000 fighting men grouped into four battalions. It also had command of 34 armoured vehicles, eight transport aircraft and eight helicopters, and a patrol boat for operations on Lake Malawi.5

The Malawi Young Pioneers (MYP), on the other hand, were established in 1963, the year Malawi attained internal self-government with Dr Banda as Prime Minister, as the elite wing of the League of Malawi Youth, a division of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP). They were at that time conceived as a means by which the nationalist movement and government would mobilise the youth — primary school leavers in particular — for a clearly defined role in the development of the emerging nation. And, they were modelled after the Young Pioneers of Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana and the National Service Brigade of Israel, both of which organisations played a role in the initial training of the Malawi Young Pioneers.

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In the early years of their existence, that is up to 1967, the Young Pioneers were mainly concerned with rural development work and political indoctrination. In the former role, they came to be viewed as a spearhead of rural development as far as young members of society were concerned, for they received training in improved methods of agriculture, carpentry, the building trades, etc. Their political role, on the other hand, called for their being exemplary as projectors of Kamuzuism — the ideology that Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda, as Father and Founder of the Malawi nation, was the fount of all wisdom and always knew what was best for the nation. Following the attainment of independence in 1964, the MYPs became particularly identified with projecting the four cornerstones of Unity, Loyalty, Obedience, and Discipline upon which Dr Banda sought to build the new nation. Their role in this regard was to whip up sentiments of loyalty to Dr Banda personally, the MCP and the government at large.6
As founder and Commander-in-Chief of the MYP, Dr Banda himself emphasised the developmental role they were supposed to play in the life of the new nation, at the expense of their political activities which were to intimidate and annoy many Malawians with the passage of time. Addressing a mammoth gathering in Lilongwe on 7 April 1975, for example, he explained:

I organised the Young Pioneers so that the youth would make useful citizens of the country. I did not want our youth to roam the streets of Zomba, Blantyre, and Lilongwe, loafing with their hands in their pockets . . . parasites leaning on their parents, depending on their parents to give them everything while they just sat and ate, doing nothing. No, they had to be taught first and foremost, discipline and respect for their elders; then respect for manual labour.7

This emphasis on doing something to improve the status and fortunes of the youth within a rural context and thereby stem their tendency to drift to urban areas where jobs for them did not exist, appealed to many donor nations. These came to applaud Dr Banda and the nation he was leading as an example of how best to tackle the problem of unemployment among school leavers in Africa. Consequently, support for the MYP programme was readily generated from many developed countries, including the liberal democracies of Denmark, Germany, and Canada. These provided training facilities and scholarships through which hundreds of MYPs were able to receive technical training in Europe and North America in the 1970s and early 1980s.

With the passage of time, however, the MYP went beyond the economic and political roles that were originally envisaged for them. They 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. Their training for this role involved physical exercises and drill, the use of small arms, and the gathering and analysis of intelligence reports.

Otherwise, the overall training menu for average members of the MYP involved spending one year at a training base, following a multi-faceted curriculum that included lessons in political education, physical education, rural development work including farming and livestock keeping, and the use and maintenance of small firearms. By 1989 there were MYP training bases in each of the 24 districts into which the country was then divided.

Once trained, the Young Pioneers were deployed to different parts of the country, including their home areas, to work on rural development schemes. Here, they also served as a 'third security force' that was particularly zealous at policing party meetings, markets, bus stations, etc. The big season for them each year was the month of April — a time of harvest in Malawi. For a whole week, the Young Pioneers, supported by other Youth Leaguers and students, converged at each district headquarters in full strength, to hold parades, demonstrate their skills in various spheres of economic activity, underscore the contribution they were making to national development, and affirm their loyalty to Dr Banda and his government.

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By the onset of the democratic transition in 1992, there were an estimated 6,000 armed Young Pioneers manning the various establishments of the organisation, which included farms, offices and warehouses, houses, garages, shops, training bases, etc. They were more or less adequately trained militarily, heavily armed, and thoroughly indoctrinated in the fashion of Kamuzuism. Potential military support for them could also be expected from a reserve force of about 45,000 previously trained Young Pioneers who were then scattered for various pursuits throughout the country. The MCP government was then heavily committed to providing financial support to the organisation most of whose officers were on government payroll and were given travel allowances. One opposition group which did some homework on this, the United Democratic Front (UDF), concluded that govern-ment expenditure on the MYP amounted to 150% of the country's entire health budget.8

Malawi Young Pioneers and the Banda Regime
Along with the MPC Youth League and the Malawi Police, the Young Pioneers were a major instrument for the operationalisation of Dr Banda's one party state dictatorship and terrorism. As a number of observers have shown, the emergence of such a dictatorship was inevitable in Malawi after the 'Cabinet Crisis' of September 1964, in which Dr Banda dismissed and triumphed over six of the cabinet ministries with which he started at the time of independence.9 The role of the Young Pioneers therefore was that of seeing to it that Dr Banda, whom they treated as the all powerful and all knowing leader, was elevated way above any political opposition that might have existed, real or imaginary.

Indeed, central to the repressive political system Malawians permitted Dr Banda to construct after 1964, was the deification of Dr Banda himself, the elevation of the Malawi Congress Party into a sole object of allegiance, and the victimisation of those who were not prepared to conform.

There was no end to the superlatives that came to be applied to Dr Banda as ‘Father and Founder of the Nation’. He became ‘the Leader’, ‘the Fire’, ‘the Lion’, ‘the Fountain of Wisdom’, etc. The four cornerstones of Unity, Loyalty, Obedience, and Discipline with the help of which he sought to mould the nation, had to be accepted and internalised by all Malawians without exception. The Young Pioneers served as watchdogs in this.

They were also behind the campaigns through which the MCP was able to control the lives of almost all Malawians. These included forcing everyone to attend party meetings and activities, and to buy the party membership card. And, they also involved mobilising women and school children for political dances and parades.

Furthermore, the Young Pioneers served as a private army with which the Banda regime was able to harass and persecute those who could not conform to the autocracy. These were arrested, detained, tortured, sent into forced exile, and sometimes even maimed or killed.
The results of the brutality to which non-conformists were subjected by the Young Pioneers and other repressive agents were shattering for Malawi as a nation. Many of those who were targeted lost their jobs, especially if they were civil servants or employees of parastatal organisations. In areas that were connected with anti-Banda sentiments, as was the case with Mangochi and Rumphi, entire families were uprooted, whole villages disbanded, or schools closed indefinitely. And, at national level, hundreds of political activists and intellectuals fled the country and became refugees, in Britain and in neighbouring countries like Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.10

MYP Security and Operation Bwezani
With the passage of time and especially after the Yatuta Chisiza abortive invasion of the country from Tanzania in 1967, the MYP were allowed to develop military muscle, and it was that development which laid the ground for their later confrontation with the Malawi Army.
To begin with, their training in the use of firearms, martial arts, and battle tactics were improved, thanks to the role of advisers from Israel and Taiwan. At the level of weaponry, they were equipped with more sophisticated, automatic firearms than those to which they had access in the mid-1960s. Their sources of supply here included Israel, Taiwan, and South Africa. By 1980, their arsenals included helicopter-mounted guns. Their intelligence-gathering system, which was inspired and designed by the Israelis and controlled from a base on the southern outskirts of the City of Blantyre, manifestly rivalled that of the Police or Army. In a nutshell, the MYP were by the 1980s overlapping with and in some cases overshadowing the Police and Army in their security operations. The Army then had this as well as other grounds for resenting the MYP’s accumulation of military influence. These other grounds included the way the civil war in Mozambique, between FRELIMO and RENAMO, was then affecting Malawi.

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Between 1982 and 1986, Malawi witnessed an influx of refugees from the war in Mozambique. At the peak of this influx in 1986, it was estimated that close to one million Mozambicans had crossed into Malawi.11 They mostly hailed from the parts of Mozambique that were virtually under RENAMO control and many were sympathetic to that dissident movement against the FRELIMO government. RENAMO was active amongst them, and it apparently operated with the help and blessings of the Young Pioneers, at the discreet top level. In other words, the MYP supported RENAMO allegedly under guidance from Dr Banda’s Privy Council. But, late in the 1980s the Malawi army too was drawn into the Mozambican fracas, opposite the side the Young Pioneers had been supporting, albeit unofficially.

In March 1987, Dr Banda reached an agreement with the new Mozambican President, Joaquim Chissano, according to which units of the Malawi Army were to operate jointly with those of the Mozambican Army in guarding the Northern Mozambique Railway Line from Nayuchi on the Malawi-Mozambique border to the port of Nacala on the east coast.

The two armies were to guard the line against disruptive RENAMO bandits. This was in many ways a fence-mending gesture on Dr Banda’s part, given the extent to which the international community had for long linked him to the destabilising campaign in Mozambique, and to the cause of the death, in an air crash, of Mozambique’s first president, Samora Machel, in September 1986.

For the Malawi Army, involvement in the war against RENAMO was an eye-opener vis-à-vis the military and political situation in Southern Africa. The close working relationship which developed between officers of the Malawi Army and their Mozambican counterparts gave the Malawi Army access to the Mozambican side of the war between FRELIMO and RENAMO. One dimension of this revealed to the Malawi Army the links which existed between RENAMO and the Young Pioneers.12 It made elements in the Malawi Army furious to realise that they were losing men in a war which was being fuelled by their own country, through the MYP.

The realisation of Malawi’s double-dealing in the war in Mozambique made the last years of General Melvin Khanga’s tenure as Commanding Officer of the Malawi Army (1982-92) difficult.13 He was under pressure from his men to convey to Dr Banda and his lieutenants, including Honourable J. Z. U. Tembo, the Army’s resentment of having to fight an enemy, RENAMO, whose efforts were being abetted by Malawi’s own sons in the from of the Young Pioneers.

Against this background on how the MYP’s military activities had sometimes run counter to the interests and plans of the Malawi Army, Operation Bwezani was not just a consequence of a mere shoot-out between groups of Young Pioneers and Malawi Army soldiers returning from a drinking spree; it was also the culmination of tensions which had been building up between the two forces since the 1980s. At the beginning of the democratic transition in 1992/93, the political climate in the country was changing so rapidly that institutions once immune from public censure began to be on the defensive. The MPY were amongst these. There were in fact calls for the dismantling of the Young Pioneers from advocates of multi-partyism, but Dr Banda and his government did not respond. In desperation, those who banked on the demise of this repressive para-military organisation began to call upon the Army to do something, under the pretext that the MYP were recipients of military material and favours that ideally belonged to the Army. But, the MYP-Malawi Army confrontation, when it erupted in December 1993, was sparked by an accident.

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Operation Bwezani started on 1 December 1993 in the northern city of Mzuzu as a bar room brawl between a group of soldiers from Moyale Barracks and their MYP counterparts from the northern regional headquarters of that organisation. Two Malawi Army soldiers were shot dead in the incident. The Army’s immediate reaction to the provocation was unofficial; gangs of off-duty soldiers went on the rampage; they apprehended and bit-up any Young Pioneers who could be found about town. The following day, 2 December, was marked by an uneasy tension as soldiers in Mzuzu and Lilongwe clamoured for action against the Young Pioneers, but without receiving authority for such from their commanding officers. It was on 3 December that infantry and mounted brigades from Kamuzu Barracks, the Army Headquarters, commanded by middle and junior rank officers, took to the streets in Lilongwe in a hunt for the Young Pioneers from the MYP and MCP headquarters as well as other offices and buildings the two organisations owned in different parts of the city. By 4 December, the Army had extended its operations against the Young Pioneers to the southern cities of Zomba and Blantyre. And on 8 December, the Army issued the declaration that the overall aim of the operation was to completely disarm and dismantle the Young Pioneers. The code given the operation, Operation Bwezani (Operation Return All), clearly underlined the view that the aim was to force the MYP to surrender the firearms they held to the rightful owners, the Army and the Police.14

Over the next two weeks or so, the Army rolled all over the country, attacking and sacking MYP bases and establishments before it declared the operation a complete success and called it off. Meanwhile, throughout its operations against the MYP, the Army received enthusiastic support from pro-democracy forces and the public at large. This was especially so in the main concentration areas of Mzuzu, Lilongwe, and Blantyre where Army units on hunt for fleeing Young Pioneers were ecstatically cheered on by huge crowds.

Like any operation of its kind, Operation Bwezani had its casualties. In all, it was reported that 25 people had been killed and 123 others wounded, mainly on the side of the Young Pioneers who did not put up the effective resistance that had been anticipated.15 As for the objectives of the operation, these appear to have been realised for the most part. Hundreds of Young Pioneers surrendered to the Army along with unspecified numbers of firearms, while hundreds of others fled to the countryside where they sought asylum with relatives. The nation’s attention and anxiety, however, was then focused on about one-third (±2,000) of the Young Pioneers who could not be accounted for. These were said or believed to have fled to RENAMO Camps in the Angonia and Tete districts of Mozambique, allegedly with their firearms as well.

The MYP-RENAMO Connection
The flight of the defeated Young Pioneers to RENAMO camps in Mozambique made a lot of sense historically, although its scale was definitely exaggerated by those who had an axe to gring against the Young Pioneers and their collaborators in RENAMO.

It is worth noting here that the MYP’s connection with Mozambican groups opposed to FRELIMO dated to as far back as 1966. At that time, the Young Pioneers began to patrol the Malawi-Mozambique border in order to check the activities of FRELIMO, in line with Dr Banda’s close dealings with the Portuguese colonial regime then still in control of Mozambique. In their pro-Portuguese and anti-FRELIMO activities, the Young Pioneers then cooperated with a rival nationalist movement whose aim was to create a pro-Malawi, black-controlled state in northern Mozambique that was sometimes secret-coded ‘Malawi II’. This was the National Union of Rombezia which had Amos Sumane as one of its leaders.16

Following the independence of Mozambique under FRELIMO, the Young Pioneers shifted their support to RENAMO as the latter mounted its resistance to the FRELIMO-led government. But for a long time, MYP support for RENAMO was kept at a low profile and virtually confined to dealings through RENAMO’s offices around Blantyre. That gave way to more elaborate and sustainable relations from 1982 to 1986. During this period, South Africa, as RENAMO’s main patron, devised a strategy of supporting and supplying RENAMO through Malawi, as Zimbabwe’s military support of the FRELIMO government’s operations south of the Zambezi River made RENAMO’s position rather untenable there.17 The MYP’s role in this roundabout way by means of which South Africa was still able to adequately equip RENAMO was to grant transit facilities to RENAMO leaders and cadres and to relay to RENAMO the military hardware which special forces within the South Africa Defence Force air-freighted to Lilongwe in the name of the MYP.

This was done with the help of transport planes some of which used to fly into the international airport at Lilongwe at night, to deliver ‘special cargo’. From Lilongwe, the MYP took charge of the cargo until it was handed over to RENAMO agents in the border districts of Dedza, Ntcheu, Mwanza, Chikwawa, Nsanje, Mulanje, and Mangochi.18

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The Young Pioneers thus served as a conduit through which South Africa was able to massively equip RENAMO for its war of destruction north of the Zambezi River. With the support in question, RENAMO was by 1986 well on its way to winning the war against FRELIMO in all the districts that bordered on Malawi. This was particulary the case, as the author had the opportunity to witness, in Angonia and Tete in the west and Mulanje and Nyasha in the east.19

The Aftermath of Operation Bwezani
The army’s destruction of the Young Pioneers was on the whole enthusiastically supported by the Malawian public, and the urban crowds in particular. Once the dust it had kicked up had settled, however, it did not take long for the same crowd to realise that the consequences of eliminating the MYP would not be the unqualified blessing it had been anticipated to be. If anything, it raised a new set of security problems and many unanswered questions about the huge amounts of national property that had been destroyed.

To begin with, within a month or so after the operation, a certain amount of insecurity was generated nation-wide over the large number of firearms the Army was unable to recover from MYP bases and establishments. The Army did capture considerable quantities of guns and ammunitions through the operations it mounted from 3 to 5 December, but that was as far as its successes went in this regard. The MYP bases that it invaded from 8 to 21 December, however, were found to have been virtually evacuated as far as firearms were concerned. This led to public anxiety about what had become of the bulk of MYP military hardware, whether the country had the capacity of developing a mechanism for controlling the proliferation of firearms which then seemed inevitable, and what was likely to follow if the ‘missing’ guns fell into the hands of those who had vested interest in destabilising the democratisation process that was then underway.

Within six months after ‘Operation Bwezani’, concerns also began to be raised about the gap in the public security system which the dismantling of the Young Pioneers created. This was because among the many functions the Young Pioneers had performed, was that of grassroots policing at community level. They did this by merely insisting that there should be law and order everywhere in the land, ‘because that was the wish of the Ngwazi’ (the hero’s name by which Dr Banda was popularly known). Indeed, the disappearance of the Young Pioneers was followed by a considerable breakdown of public security. This took the form of armed robberies in townships; the terrorising of school children as they returned from school; and of women as they returned from religious and family planning meetings; etc. In reaction to such a deterioration of public security, some urban communities began to take the law into their own hands, by devising their own way of apprehending and punishing offenders or would-be offenders.

There was also an element of waste about ‘Operation Bwezani’ to which many Malawians could not be easily reconciled. During their thirty years of existence, the MYP accumulated enormous amounts of real estate property in the form of farmsteads, buildings, offices, training facilities, mechanical workshops, etc. Much of this was bombarded, vandalised, and looted, and rapidly fell into disuse. In other words, the millions of dollars once invested in developing the property concerned went to waste.20 It is only of late that plans have been drawn for the reoccupation and rehabilitation of the assets in question and their conversion into community-based projects, such as day secondary schools, vocational training centres, co-operative retail shops, etc.

There were military and political dimensions to Operation Bwezani which have a bearing on how armies in Africa can be expected to conduct themselves in times of socio-political transition.
At one level, the operation could be viewed as an example of how an army can take advantage of a people’s cause to consolidate its materiel vis-a-vis those of competing elements. This merely underlines the penchant armies in Africa have for high-jacking popular struggles.
And at another level, ‘Operation Bwezani’ merely exemplified the inability of African armies to resist the attraction of popular ideology and struggle at a time of diminished legitimacy for established authority. In that case, it is a good pointer to the kind of politicisation armies are likely to undergo in politically volatile situations not only in Africa but elsewhere as well.

A Case of Revolutionary Change in Contemporary Malawi: The Malawi Army and the Disarming of the Malawi Young Pioneers