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Youth discontented with politics yet less likely to vie or even vote
When law enforcement officers rounded up a group of political demonstrators in The Gambia’s capital, Banjul, in December 2016, most of those arrested were young people. They were protesting against The Gambia’s then-president Yahya Jammeh’s decision to stay in office after having initially conceded defeat to his electoral opponent, Adama Barrow. Under sustained local and international pressure, he finally relinquished power and went into exile.
The Gambian protests were just one of a series that have gripped many countries across the continent over the last 10 years. In 2015 and 2016 alone, about half of the continent experienced major protests, Africanews, a pan-African news broadcaster, reported.
Before The Gambia, Ethiopia’s Oromia and Amhara Regions garnered attention as scores of people protested almost daily, first over land ownership issues and soon over political exclusion. In South Africa, proposed hikes of tuition fees unleashed students on the streets to demand deep reforms in university education.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), uncertainties about the end of President Joseph Kabila’s constitutional mandate provoked protests and riots in the capital, Kinshasa, and across the country for the better part of the year.
In Zimbabwe, a social media campaign in 2016 against the prolonged stay in office of President Robert Mugabe drove protesters into the streets, the latest in a string of demonstrations against his government over the past decade.
Media reports on street demonstrations routinely highlight the active presence of youth at the helm of these political and social discontents across the continent. Spreading from Tunisia, the Arab Spring was inspired by youth protests. In Egypt, young activists were instrumental in ushering in political change that seems to have been gradually reversed, while in West Africa, Senegalese activists from Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) and Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen (Citizen Broom) were successful in mobilizing against constitutional changes in their respective countries.
There is an overall reluctance by young activists on the continent to associate themselves with partisan politics.
In other countries, such as Burundi, Central African Republic and Gabon, young people were active in voicing their discontent over a variety of issues, including free and fair elections.
Yet despite the increasing role of youth in political protests, studies suggest that political participation, which involves more than protesting, lags among those aged 18-35.
“African youth are less likely to vote in national elections, engage in civic activities or join others in raising an issue, compared to their elders,” Michael Bratton, professor of political science and African studies at Michigan State University in the United States, told Africa Renewal.
Professor Bratton referred to a survey published in August 2016 by Ghana-based Afrobarometer, an independent pan-African research network that conducts public opinion surveys, of which he is a co-founder. Conducted in 36 countries across the continent, the survey found that only 65% of young people eligible to vote cast a vote in their country’s last national election, compared to almost 80% of older people.
Suspicions and hurdles
So why is it that, despite being more active than their elders in political protests, young people are often less engaged in the overall political processes across the continent?
“The situation is not unique to Africa,” says Professor Bratton. “The trend is global.”
Among the key reasons is the overall reluctance by young activists on the continent to associate themselves with partisan politics, as there is a lack of trust of young people in their current elected representatives. There is often a perception among youth in some countries that politicians are generally corrupt and whoever associates with them is bound to be corrupted.
Boniface Mwangi, a firebrand and popular Kenyan young political activist, raised eyebrows in his country when he announced in 2016 that he would stand for a parliamentary seat in 2017. At his book signing event, held in New York in January, a bewildered young woman confronted Mr. Mwangi. “What makes you think you won’t become just like them?” she asked. Another Kenyan demanded to know from Mr. Mwangi: “You have denounced them as corrupt, and now you want to join them? What makes you think you won’t become just like them?” The young politician’s response that he is “principled and will not change” did not seem to convince most of the young Kenyans at the event.
When young people protest on the streets, they usually do so under the banners of civic and nonpartisan groups. “We are not politicians, we are citizens and we don’t want to be beholden to political parties,” Idrissa Barry of Le Balai Citoyen told Africa Renewal. They say they want to stay nonpartisan beyond the protests in order to continue to hold politicians accountable.
Yet by refusing to hold political office, young people appear to be denying themselves opportunities to participate in policy making and changing the laws. Other problems they face when they want to run for election include disparities between voting and eligibility ages. In most countries “there is a gap between the legal…voting age and the age at which an individual can serve in elective office,” noted a 2013 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) guide on enhancing youth participation throughout the electoral cycle. While the average voting age across the continent is 18.2 years, the age for vying is 22.1 years.
“An African skills revolution is needed to unlock the potential, the energy, the creativity and the talents of Africa’s young men and women,” said Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former chairperson of the Africa Union (AU) Commission, early this year.
As African leaders converged in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, last January to discuss how to ensure the continent fully benefits from the opportunities offered by its young population, and how to tackle unemployment, Ms. Dlamini-Zuma said engaging youth, creating jobs, transforming economies, including through diversification, modernising and industrializing agriculture and investing in young people were the ways forward.
AU youth charter
The AU acknowledged the importance of investing in young people by adopting the African Youth Charter about 10 years ago and later declaring 2009 through 2018 the “African Youth Decade.” It developed an action plan to empower youth and promote their participation in politics. Yet, as events in many African cities and various surveys, have shown, plans to get more youth elected to political office have not been translated into action.
Less than two years before the end of the youth decade in 2018, there is not much evidence that governments have conceived, let alone implemented, youth-targeted programmes to encourage their participation in the political processes, except in a few countries.
Some countries have resorted to affirmative action to ensure youth are represented in parliament. According to the UNDP, Uganda reserves five seats in its parliament for youth representatives. In Kenya, 12 parliamentary seats are reserved for representatives to be nominated by political parties to represent special interests, including youth, people with disabilities and workers. In Rwanda, the National Youth Council elects two members to the chamber of deputies. In Morocco, the election law includes 30 seats reserved for candidates under the age of 40.
Most youth initiatives on the continent, however, appear to be more about providing jobs and decent education than participation in the political system, including representation.
During the run-up to the presidential election in Tanzania in October 2015, observers noted that the country’s youth could tip the poll to the opposition coalition, thus ending the decades-long presence of the incumbent party at the helm of the East African country since independence. They cited the use of social media platforms as a campaign tool, the involvement of scores of young people as election monitors and the high attendance of youth at opposition rallies.
Digital activism as an alternative mode of political participation has increased youth participation in civic affairs and “low politics,” according to the Global Youth Development Index and Report 2016. By low politics the report meant social and environmental issues, mostly at local levels. “Young people are using social media to express their opinion, participate in campaigns and organize protests,” said the report.
However, for all the momentum created by the Arab Spring and the successes of youth involvement in electing new leaders in Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Gabon, Niger and Senegal, it appears this has had little impact in raising political engagement among the youth in Africa.
According to Professor Bratton, this may be attributed to “media reports and the extensive use of social media platforms by young people,” which may have contributed to presenting a distorted view of the real influence wielded by youth across the continent.
Yet even as youth remain less engaged than older people in all other categories of political participation, with the exception of demonstrations and protests, the Tanzanian experience showed that they may have found their voice on social media, and are participating in politics in a different way.