A seat at the table

African youth demand a say in decision making
From Africa Renewal: 
page 20
Tunisian youth demonstrate on Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis. Photo: Corbis/APImages/Samuel Aranda

Ask members of the African political elite, civil society activists or anyone else about the role of youth in national development and you will hear a lot of profound, if trite, catchphrases, such as “The youth are the future they are the leaders of tomorrow.” African leaders even declared 2009–18 the African Youth Decade. Before that, in 2006, they adopted the African Youth Charter, with one of the goals being to lure younger people into participating in political debates and decision-making processes.

But African youth are no longer enthusiastic about an occasional show of love. Now they want a real engagement with the political elites. They said so during a three-day youth conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November 2012, when they met to discuss their participation in democracy. 

Catalysts for social change

Just two years ago, during the Arab Spring, young people mobilized for human rights and justice, in the process toppling autocratic leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. They have also taken part in more abhorrent activities, such as in the debilitating wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, post-election violence in Kenya and other types of conflict.

Such cases show that youth can make, strengthen or break a system. But if they have a choice, they would rather be catalysts for positive social change than agents of strife, writes Shari Bryan, vice-president of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US non-profit organization that promotes democracy.

Chinua Akukwe, an Africa expert who teaches at George Washington University in Washington, DC, adds that without political participation, young people can easily be manipulated. “Unemployment and exclusion from decision-making processes render them hopeless and desperate.”

Strange bedfellows

Although African governments have created many plans and frameworks to foster their political inclusion, youth are grumbling loudly. Ms. Bryan explains in her paper that both younger and older members of the political elite understand they have to engage with each other, but that such engagement does not happen naturally. “It will require a facilitated, action-oriented approach that gives young people the skills to create projects that will allow them to introduce ideas and solutions directly into the political system,” she writes.

A first-time voter after casting her ballot at a polling station in Rondebosch, South Africa. Photo: Panos/Eric Miller

Such action-oriented approaches have been tried before. In a paper published by UN University Press, Gregory Lavender recalls that past African leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta tapped young people’s creative energies while crafting economic, political and social transformation plans in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s and 1980s, continues Mr. Lavender, many African countries had begun implementing structural adjustment austerity measures, which included sharp budget cuts in sectors that normally benefit young people, such as education, health and job creation. “There was therefore a breakdown of youth as a meaningful transition period to adulthood,” he writes.

Wind at their backs

In recent years, however, African youth, like those in other parts of the world, have appeared to have the wind at their backs. Massive improvements in means of communication have enhanced their influence. In the past, African governments controlled most of the electronic media, giving them considerable leverage over public opinion, note Ms. Resnick and Ms. Casale. With the growing popularity of the Internet and the accelerating speed of communications, this influence has waned — some even believe it has been wiped out. 

More and more African governments would now like to see young people get into politics. In 2008, the Rwandan government asked the NDI to develop a programme to help its youth play important roles within political parties. The Mano River Union (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) has a Youth Parliament that enables young people to deliberate and set their own agendas for their governments’ consideration. 

 After his re-election in 2012, President Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone appointed two people in their early thirties to the cabinet. To support these youngest-ever cabinet members, Sierra Leonean youth mobilized with singing and dancing in front of the parliament building during their confirmation hearings. 

Voting age controversy

Meanwhile, some are campaigning to lower the voting age to increase youth participation. Harvard University professor Calestous Juma, who is from Kenya, argues that while most African countries have set 18 as the minimum voting age, some of those between the ages of 12 and 18 work and are active in political discussions through social media. “Lowering the voting age to 16 for all African countries would not only reflect the demographic structure of the continent,” says Mr. Juma, “but it would also expand political participation.” 

A survey of young people carried out in 2012 as part of a UN action plan on youth identifies political leaders’ ignorance and indifference to youth matters as key concerns. It adds that this ignorance and indifference make leaders unlikely to “support youth branches of political organizations.” That same year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outlined a number of actions that world leaders should take over the next five years. Those included addressing climate change, forging and implementing a consensus framework for sustainable development, and working with and for women and young people.