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The Startling Rise of the (Young) African Citizen

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Originally published in November 2021

By Edward DeMarco

Browsing around an outdoor art show in the sleepy capital city Lilongwe on a recent, blistering-hot morning, I came across a captivating pop-art portrait of Malawi’s new president, Lazarus Chakwera, rendered in a batik pattern of apple-green flecked with red – the major colors of the south-central African country’s sunrise flag.  

The artist Ellis Singano named his masterwork Hope. I immediately dubbed the piece Hope, Y’all, for the president speaks English in the soft drawl of my native American South. (I know not why.) 

That Malawians have placed great hope in a man named Lazarus reminds us that something extraordinary happened here in 2020 as the coronavirus imprisoned our world behind doors and masks. Chakwera revived his opposition candidacy and won with 58 percent of the vote in a rematch after challenging vote fraud by the incumbent in the initial election in 2019.  

The constitutional court ruled in Chakwera’s favor, annulled the phony win and ordered new voting. It was a rare African judicial victory for a clean election, and in one of the world’s poorest nations. 

So impressive was this stand for the people in the face of brazen alterations of vote tally sheets – with white correcting fluid, as Chakwera notes in his official bio – that the Economist magazine declared Malawi the “country of the year” in 2020. Malawi claimed the title for advancing democracy and respect for human rights, while those benchmarks regressed in scores of other countries during the pandemic. “Malawi is still poor,” opined the Economist’s editors, “but its people are citizens, not subjects.” 

Malawi emboldened Zambians next door to oust the China debt-loving incumbent president, Edgar Lungu, who was dragging the country to ruin. His opponent, business executive Hakainde Hichilema, won by 1 million votes in August out of about 5 million cast. It’s probably not a coincidence that HH (as he’s called) flipped constituencies in Eastern Province, Lungu’s stronghold and the route to Lilongwe just over the border, on his way to taking the presidency.

A leader named Lazarus envisions the awakening of Malawi

 

And that stunning victory margin, almost unheard of in African politics, I’m sure inspired quite a few South African voters in local elections this month to deal the ruling African National Congress party of Mandela its biggest setback since the end of apartheid. (Record joblessness, crushing C-19 lockdowns, deep-rooted corruption, faltering public services and staggering mass looting also played their parts in South Africa’s voter revolt.)  

Africans are called many things – insurgents, protesters, passive spectators, village illiterates and, worst of all, beneficiaries, a label I came to loathe while working on American development aid programs. We do not toil for a life insurance company nor are African women and men, however limited their learning, child-like supplicants, eager to receive whatever training, treatment or trinket that some international donor decides to give them.  

Rarely are Africans described as citizens, as their counterparts in America or Europe routinely are, inheriting a concept binding the ruler and the ruled in Greek city-states and imperial Rome.

Almost two-thirds of people in 18 African countries said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to finance development

Yet Africans are authentic citizens in a social contract with their governments and have a stake in this thing called “development.” They have a legitimate claim on shaping their future and need to be involved in designing, funding and overseeing efforts to overcome social and economic barriers to achieving their civil rights, peace and prosperity. 

One aspect of that social contract is paying taxes, a revenue stream that is still being built in Africa. Yet almost two-thirds of people surveyed in 18 African countries by Afrobarometer said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to finance their country’s development versus relying on loans from foreign countries and institutions.  

A stereotype also festers among political pundits – that the average African voter is an immature, impressionable, not terribly analytical bystander easily swayed by a cheap handout from a patronage-obsessed politician. (Some of the freebies do have remarkable staying power: last year you could still see Zambian women wearing the wrap skirts known as chitenges printed with Lungu’s picture, which the now discredited Patriotic Front handed out across Zambia before the 2016 election.) 

This was the accepted narrative before the ground-shifting elections in Malawi and Zambia: the voting would be close, susceptible to manipulation or outright fraud, and predictable because the average voter aligns with tribal and ethnic passions and doesn’t care much for giving the issues a deep-think. Like a beer-thumping American football fan hungry for the next touchdown, these herd-like voters just want the whole thing over with so as to reap the post-game spoils. And more beer. 

Distracted by the madness in Ethiopia, where the government and the former ruling cabal are locked in conflict, the wider world hasn’t yet recognized that something rather startling is going on here in southern Africa. We’re witnessing the full-throated rise of the African citizen. Who happens, in most cases, to be from the generation raised on the Internet. Like the volcanic, speak-truth-to-power fictional American news anchor Howard Beale in the movie Network, these youthful citizens are flinging open their windows and shouting. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” 

A majority of the 7 million registered voters in Zambia were under 35 years old, according to Restless Development Zambia, which promoted youth participation. Women outnumbered men by almost a half-million on the voter registration list; indeed, activist young Zambian women have been at the forefront in fighting for democracy, free speech and fair play. Writers from Nigeria to South Africa to Zimbabwe marveled at how young Zambians flocked to the polls, waiting in long lines to cast their votes. 

How Zambia found its youthful vibe

“This victory is not mine but for all the citizens of our great country, especially the youth who turned out to vote in great numbers with great energy and passion, and made this day possible,” HH said in his inauguration speech. In praising the youth surge, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “Zambia’s unshakeable commitment to democratic ideals is an inspiration” for those seeking to “unleash our full human potential.” 

With Covid battering an already weak economy in a resource-rich country with immense potential for growth, the weary youth of Zambia rose up to demand better. In the eastern city of Chipata along the border with Malawi, a 27-year-old independent candidate, George Mwanza, soundly defeated challengers from both major parties to become mayor. 

The young citizens of Africa want jobs to fulfill their education, functional public services and the freedom to create businesses without political and bureaucratic hassles. That quest is acute here in Malawi, which basically has no way to go but up. 

The total output of Malawi’s goods and services, averaged over its population of around 19 million, amounts to less than $2 a day – coincidentally the definition of extreme income poverty. Malawi is an extreme-poverty economy, living on the edge. Farming maize is the mainstay of communities, dependent on rainfall that climate change has turned fickle. Eighty-five percent of Malawi’s energy comes from wood and other biofuels, accelerating deforestation; only 15 percent of people are connected to electricity. Rising above subsistence is an aspiration, not an expectation.

In a speech this week to roll out a 10-year national plan to modernize agriculture and boost per-capita income to $1,000, Chakwera told Malawians that citizenship must be a two-way street. He lamented that his phone is jammed with more than 500 messages from people asking him to run their families. “A country will never develop with that kind of spirit,” he told the audience, heads nodding.

“One infectious habit we must each cure ourselves of is the habit of demanding more from our politicians than we demand from ourselves,” the president said, by turns preacher and persuader.

“Do I really want things to change,” the man called Lazarus said each Malawian must ask himself or herself, “or do I just want to admire those other countries and never be willing to pay the price that those countries pay to be where they are today?”

Chakwera photo by Laluh Luhanga via Creative Commons 4.0 license. Hope painting used courtesy of the artist.


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