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23 years of tearing apart ex- Malawi Young Pioneers cloth of patience

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It must, surely, be a precarious condition.

On one hand are public officials who, steeped in their own sense of self importance, seem to have taken too long to spare a minute to reflect on the plight of those who served in the defunct Malawi Young Pioneer (MYP). No wonder, ex-MYPs such as Austin Mwandalo seem to believe that government officials do not often reflect on challenges facing individual citizens, except in relation to itself— meaning, save when it serves their interests.

Mwandalo, therefore, sees a government that is almost innocent of any sense of responsibility.

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On the other hand are the affected ex-MYP operatives themselves who, despite being old enough to fend for themselves, seem to believe that the government owes them a living.

However, one of the ex-MYPs, who lost personal property such as furniture during ‘Operation Bwezani’ says the government owes them a living.

“Some of us lost property when the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) destroyed MYP structures. You may wish to know that, because some of the ex-MYPs used to spend much of their time at bases, they used to buy personal property which they were using there.

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“In my case, I lost property and it is incumbent upon the government to reinstate what I lost. So, in demanding compensation and other things, we are not demanding too much. I am disappointed that, at first, the government used to say we were not in its hands but the Young Pioneers (Repeal) indicate that we were under the government’s employ,” he said.

Indeed, Young Pioneers (Repeal), Act No. 12 of 1994, which was published on May 16 1994, indicates that “The Young Pioneers Act is repealed”, in Section 2.

Section 3 then adds: “A Young Pioneer who, at the commencement of this Act, was a public officer by virtue of section 21A of the Young Pioneers Act (now repealed) shall continue to be a person employed in the public service, and may be seconded, transferred, posted, promoted or otherwise assigned to any other eligible post in the public service, other than in the armed forces or in the Malawi Police Force:

“Provided that where, in the opinion of the Minister for the time being responsible for the public service, there is no eligible post to which a Young Pioneer may be so seconded, transferred, posted, promoted or otherwise assigned, such Young Pioneer may be retired or have his services otherwise terminated in accordance with the terms and conditions on which he is serving, not withstanding that such terms and conditions are not similar to those applicable to a public officer of an equivalent grade.”

Parliament passed the amendment on March 20 1994.

However, some ex-MYPs felt that the government was meeting some aspects of its obligation while leaving out others. They, therefore, formed a taskforce, led by Franco Chilemba, and, on July 31 this year, wrote a letter to President Peter Mutharika.

In the letter— signed by Chilemba, G. Salambula, Zalimba Mandevu and Dr Ruth Edwin, they argue:

“Your Excellency; The Constitution of Malawi guarantees the rights of all citizens, including the right to lawful compensation in accordance with the provisions of the Employment Act. As you are aware, we were employees of the State during the one party period and were forcibly retired in the public interest. We humbly accepted this decision. In order to prompt government to speed up this process, we have been compelled to hold a peaceful vigil at the Kamuzu Memorial at Capital Hill.

“The purpose of this communication is to draw your attention to the outstanding issue of compensation, gratuity and arrears, including compensation for personal property which was looted, vandalised and lost during ‘Operation Bwezani’. The issue has stalled for 23 years and you are our last hope in addressing our grievances.

“Your Excellency, we wish to remind you that since 1994, we have been languishing in spite of assurances that compensation, gratuity and arrears would be paid to all ex-MYP employees. This includes the gestures made by [former president] the late Bingu wa Mutharika to pay K500, 000 to all members of the Malawi Young Pioneers amounting to K1.6 billion.”

While the ex-MYPs went ahead to organise the vigil almost a month ago, they are still at Kamuzu Memorial site at Capital Hill.

And Chilemba said yesterday that they will not bend to pressure to go back home.

“You see, we cannot leave the Kamuzu Memorial because we want the government to act on our issues quickly. We have suffered for a long time. You may wish to know that some ex-MYPs received money in 1994 but others had fled the country and did not receive the money. Some of those who fled the country started receiving pension arrears up to the 2012/13 fiscal year. Since then, they have received nothing and they are languishing in poverty,” Chilemba said.

He says the battle will not end even when the arrears have been paid because there is another issue of compensation for lost property to be sorted out.

According to records the taskforce has, there are 2, 765 ex-MYPs who are entitled to compensation and other arrears.

But some of these have definitely died, prompting the government to suspect that someone may cash in on money that does not belong to them.

No wonder that Secretary to the Treasury, who serves in the Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development, Ben Botolo, issued a press release on July 28 this year, in which he indicated that the government wanted to clear the mess first before it could start paying out what is, in essence, taxpayers money.

In the press release, titled ‘Status of Payment of Terminal Benefits to Ex-Malawi Young Pioneers’, Botolo says: “As part of the process [of paying terminal benefits of ex-MYPs], the National Audit Office (Nao) is currently undertaking a verification exercise on all claimants. This is done in order to ensure that all would-be beneficiaries are bonafide ex-MYP members. The exercise is taking a bit longer because the government wants to ensure that the process is done in a more orderly manner to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2012 and 2013, when some unscrupulous individuals illegally benefitted from a similar exercise because the process was rushed through.

“From the preliminary findings, the current list of claimants contains duplicates, ghosts and those who are already receiving monthly pension. Almost three-quarters of work has been done by Nao and the Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development will undertake to pay the bonafide members their dues as soon as the process is thoroughly examined and completed,” Botolo indicates.

The process, according to reports, seems to have been completed, as confirmed by Chilemba on Thursday.

“We had a meeting, attended by, among others, Ben Botolo, at which we discussed that the process is complete and that they will give us a list of bonafide members this [yesterday] evening. We are happy that this has been done but we will not call off the vigil. We will also look at how to address the issue of bonafide ex-MYPs who have since died.

“As I am speaking, we have also managed to reunite all groups of ex-MYPs that were speaking different languages. But Malawians should know that we have suffered a lot and continue to suffer. We deserve justice,” Chilemba said.

But Botolo could not be drawn to comment on the issue yesterday; maybe another press statement is on the way.

Rugged path

Meanwhile, ex-MYPs such as Mwandalo continue to believe that, all these years, the government has been playing, and enjoying playing, the role of “monster of deceit”.

Mwandalo is not new to ex-MYP affairs for, about eight years ago, he led 8,999 ex-MYP employees in dragging the government to court demanding pension and compensation.

This was after the Industrial Relations Court entered into default judgement and awarded K2 billion compensation to Ex-MYP employees on July 22 2010.

The bone of contention in the matter determined by the court was the unceremonious disbandment of MYP and the subsequent job losses suffered by its officers through ‘Operation Bwezani’, a weapons’ clean up exercise conducted by the Malawi Defence Force in 1993.

The court augmented the default judgement three month later (on October 11), issuing a certificate of order against the government that reads: “Pursuant to the default judgement that was issued before the Deputy Chairperson of the IRC Principal Registry in Blantyre on 22nd July 2010, it is hereby certified that the pension be and is hereby ordered to be paid by the respondent to the applicant.”

Surprisingly, Mwandalo also said then that he wanted his old job back, a decision, he said, he made out of frustration since the government was playing hide and seek on the issue of compensation.

When the MYP was dissolved, I was based at Mapanga Boys Base, from where I was reporting for duties as a guard at the Malawi Congress Party sub-headquarters (Chichiri). Before that, I used to conduct patrols at Sanjika.

“After the dissolution, we have been suffering. Imagine, I have been struggling to go back home to Karonga,” he said.

In 2014, probably in response to Mwandalo’s calls, the Accountant General’s Department issued notices informing ex-MYP operatives to report to their respective home districts for pay parades.

Among other requirements, the department targeted those who were still in service at the dissolution of MYP, those who did not receive ex-gratia, gratuity and pension in 1995 and those who did not receive ex gratia, gratuity, and pension arrears during the first pay parade.

It also said members who had only served less than seven years at the time of the dissolution of the MYP would be paid ex-gratia, while those who had served seven years and above at the time of ‘Operation Bwezani’ and were not on pension payroll would be eligible for gratuity and pension arrears.

But that did not please Mwandalo, who said the notice issued by the Accountant General’s Department was not in tandem with the ruling of the IRC in July 2010, saying ex-MYPs who would get their benefits could get duped by the system.

The fighter he is, he knocked on every door.

For example, at one point, he approached the Legal Aid [now a bureau], before approaching the Malawi Law Society (MLS). On April 12 2013, ex-MLS executive director Paula Caetano wrote the Malawi Human Rights Commission, asking it to release Mwandalo’s case file for him to seek legal help pertaining to government’s decision to defy the court order.

Today, justice seems to be a wheel too slow for Mwandalo and, according to Chilemba, 2, 765 others.

Even the force of a vigil seems not to exert enough force to let the government act.

“We just want an end to this suffering,” Chilemba said.

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