The Rise of Youthlash: African Youth and the Democracy Dilemma

by Sierraeye

Earlier in September, the Open Society Barometer released a survey report titled Can Democracy Deliver? which found that “young people around the world hold the least faith in democracy of any age group.” Although revealing, the report’s findings are not particularly surprising. There have been several indications, especially in Africa, that there is a rapidly growing discontent among Africa’s young people towards democracy or democratic forms of government. The Open Society Barometer report confirms findings from other similar research in Africa, where over 60 per cent of the population is under 25. In 2022, the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) report described the increasing and worrying trend of disillusionment among African youth as a ‘youthquake.’

The IIAG report also projected that by 2100, Africa’s youth will represent almost half of the world’s youth. Therefore, this troubling phenomenon, which I refer to as the youthlash against democracy and democratic governance systems in the continent, should be a central topic in our discourses. Here is why.

Let us start with Zimbabwe. Prior to the country’s August 2023 elections, Afrobarometer conducted a survey among potential voters. The survey result revealed that despite the high number of Zimbabweans who had registered and were willing to vote in the elections, young Zimbabweans were “less likely than their elders to report being registered, and only slightly more than half of 18- to 35-year-olds say they will probably or definitely vote.”

According to the survey, only 54% of Zimbabweans between the ages of 18 and 35 registered to vote, as against 83% (36-55 yrs) and 72% (56+ yrs) of older Zimbabweans. The reason for this is simple – the youth of Zimbabwe, as with their counterparts in many other countries across Africa, are not benefitting from the dividends of democracy (i.e., respect for the rule of law, provision of basic essential socio-economic services, etc). Democracy as we know it has yet to address the bread-and-butter issues of Africa’s youth and young people.

In contrast to their Zimbabwean counterparts, almost 40% of the 93.4 million registered voters in Nigeria’s elections in February 2023, were young people between the ages of 18 and 34 yrs. A further 35.7% aged between 35 and 49 yrs, according to data released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The INEC data also showed that young people made up about 76% of newly registered voters, with 40% identifying as students. Anyone following political and other developments in Nigeria, could attest that this was a significant development in the country’s politics. This is because it was coming on the heels of a series of unfortunate events, namely the #EndSARS protests, incessant nationwide killings and kidnappings, and the cost of living crisis, all of which arguably affect young people disproportionately. Armed with their tweets and posts on social media platforms, Nigerian youths mobilised to increase the number of young people who registered to vote and those who actually turned up at polling stations on election day.

However, despite the impressive turnout by young Nigerians, and in spite of the existence of the Not Too Young to Run Act (2018), which has legally created space for young people to vie for elective positions across Nigeria, the number of “candidates for the 2023 election indicates a decline in youth candidacy from 34% in the 2019 general election to 28.6% in 2023.” So, while the number of young people registering to vote increased, the number of young people contesting for those votes decreased.

On the one hand, youths and young people are expected to become active citizens and are encouraged to participate in politics and democratic processes. But their votes and voices are either silenced or suppressed when they do. The hopes of many African youths for credible change through elections are often dashed. Many youths who voted in recent elections in African countries, from Nigeria to Sierra Leone to Zimbabwe, feel cheated and consider their engagements with the electioneering processes as a waste of time.

Youthlash: young people’s response to the failings of democracy.

Like a backlash, youthlash refers to the deep-seated and adverse reaction of the youthful population against current models of democratic dispensation. It is the collective, often unplanned, but generally understood response of the youth to boycott the governance systems and leadership structures in society. It is the undesirable yet undeniable wave of young people’s discontent with the older establishment in a country’s polity. In Africa, it is being manifested in multiple ways. Firstly, through a general reluctance to engage with politics or political processes associated with democracy and secondly, through direct violence or support for violent actions undertaken by others.

Youthlash is the counteraction of Africa’s youth against the older political generation as well as older political systems and approaches, with a view to causing or triggering change. Having tried and tested democratic routes to influencing change by voting in elections and supporting elected candidates, African youths have become scarily disconnected in some cases, demoralised and discontented in many other cases. Beneficiaries of the status quo may argue that this is not new, and that what we are experiencing across the continent has happened before, especially in the ‘70s and early ‘90s. However, the current manifestations of youthlash against democracy may be the scariest and most dangerous. This is primarily because youths now have the technological and mobilisation tools not previously available to previous generations.

Another way in which youthlash against democracy has manifested itself in the continent is through the number of coups and the age bracket of some of the coup leaders. Almost all the heads of the military regimes in West and Central Africa are between the ages of 35 and 45. All but one of them is below 50 yrs. Burkina Faso’s military leader is 35-year-old Capt. Ibrahim Traore. His Malian and Guinean counterparts, Col. Assimi Goita and Col. Mamady Doumbouya, are both 42 years old. The recent addition to this list, General Brice Clothaire Oligui Nguema of Gabon, is between 48-49 years old. The only outlier to this age bracket among the coupists is General Tchiani of Niger. He is 62 years old.

What all these men have in common is not just uniforms and guns. They have all replaced old civilian politicians who have either thwarted or attempted to truncate one democratic process or the other in their respective countries. In the case of Guinea, for example, Col. Mamadou Doumbouya took power from 86-year-old Prof. Alpha Conde. Two years prior to the coup, Prof. Conde had changed his country’s constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office. I was in Conakry a few days prior to the contested referendum that allowed him to change the constitution. On my way to the airport on the eve of that referendum, the then President had ordered the army to take up positions in strategic locations across Conakry to prevent protests and riots. My driver at the time, a young man in his late 20s, told me that the military had been deployed in mostly opposition areas. After the referendum, Prof. Conde used the same military that later removed him from office to shoot at and injure scores of youths who challenged the referendum results. Many of them jumped to the streets two years later to celebrate the removal of the aged President Conde from office and welcome the young Colonel Doumbouya.

The age conundrum: A young continent with older leaders

Despite the recent spate of coups and the relatively youngish age range of the coup leaders, Africa is still being led by older men. It is the youngest continent with some of the oldest Presidents or Heads of State. According to the IIAG 2022 report, Africa has the youngest population of any region in the world. The current median age in Africa is 19, which is almost 12 years younger than the second youngest region in the world – Latin America & the Caribbean (which is currently around 30 yrs). However, this does not translate to the age of the continent’s political leadership. The current average age of the continent’s leadership is 62 years. The continent also has some of the longest-serving Presidents, with some having been in power for over forty years. In displays of youthlash, young people in different parts of the continent have mobilised quiet or forceful revolutions to reverse this anomaly.

So, what next? What does the future hold for Africa’s youth?

As a continent, Africa has an opportunity to remodel its approach to leadership. This remodelling should comprise four broad elements.

Firstly, the youth and young people need liberatory education. Our current educational systems are not liberatory in nature and as such we are producing a crop of future leaders who simply copy and paste the leadership styles of the older political generation leading the continent right now.
Secondly, there is need to reimagine and redefine our understanding and relationships with democracy and democratic forms of government. This means, we need to collectively unlearn the various problematics that have bedevilled our systems of governance.

Additionally, we need to reform our laws and systems that prevent young people from contesting for elective positions. Nigeria already has the Not Too Young to Run law, which is good. But the major political parties have to ensure that they edit their party constitutions and amend processes that inhibit young people within their ranks from holding major positions.

However, while many would love to see a shift in the age bracket of the continent’s political leaders, Marjoke Oosterom warns us to be careful what we wish for. In a recent blog post for the Institute of Development Studies, she noted that “the menu of strategies for authoritarian renewal has evolved to include a dedicated youth section.” Regimes, she argued: “have targeted young people with preemptive repression, co-opting vocal youth leaders into government positions, and youth employment programmes have been used for ruling party patronage.”

Another element in this remodelling is the imperative for young people in positions of authority to resist the temptations of repeating the sins of the older political generation. Many young people with leadership responsibilities often tend to get carried away by the temporary privileges associated with their offices. Although the youthlash against democracy may be gaining ground in parts of the continent, and while various shades of authoritarian democracy may disillusion many young people, some do decide to join authoritarian democratic ruling parties. This contributes to what Oosterom refers to as “authoritarian renewal.”

Finally, the future of Africa’s socio-economic prosperity heavily depends on creating economic and political opportunities for its young people. Improving all the relevant components of a society is key to ensuring the continent’s next generation’s contribution to that development. This all comes down to a dynamic leadership and an inclusive governance architecture. It is therefore crucial that an enabling space is created for young people to thrive in leadership roles. It is equally important that when they eventually get into positions of power, they do not become political vuvuzelas – loud annoying noisemakers.

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