Whether it is a quote from Nelson Mandela stating that the future belongs to the young people as leaders of tomorrow, or a quote from Mao Tse Tung saying that the ´young people are the most active and vital force in society,
It has become clear that the youth in Africa have a bigger stake in shaping society. This is underscored by our vitality, inquisition, and our numbers.
The young people in Africa alone contribute to more than half of the continent’s population. According to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, about 995.3 million of the 1.2 billion people in Africa are people below the age of 35 years. The biggest component of the young population is in Sub-Saharan Africa averaging 70% under the age of 30 years.
The numbers represent optimism for the world’s youngest population. One would add that better days are ahead of us. The numbers are promising a future that will be created by the current generation of young people. In this article, I interrogate the role of Africa´s young people in shaping that desired future, in creating the ideal continent that we would want to live in, one that we would gladly hand over to posterity. Are we taking the right actions? Are we making the necessary choices? Are we civically engaged to curve out the society we truly want?
The African youth and Civil Engagement
It is not uncommon to reference the notable people throughout history that have made a difference at a young age—from Jesus Christ who by 33 years had built a movement that continues to shape society, to Martin Luther King Jr who became a notable civil rights leader at 25 and consequently leading the most iconic march on Washington at 34 years, to Malala Yousafzai whose activism earned her a Nobel Prize at the age of 17. The list is longer than one would imagine enumerating.
The precedents of action by young people who came before us notwithstanding, the youth action in Africa is beginning to face its most challenging period in history. In the past five years, reduced civic and political engagement among the youth has increased. Many have termed this ‘Apathy,’ a term I use with an exception. ‘Apathy’ for civic engagement and political participation has been reported to be escalating among Africa’s youth. A more recent example of this development is the low levels of youth participation in the 2019 elections in South Africa and more recently, the August 2022 Kenya elections.
Whereas 75% of the population in Kenya are youth, only 40% registered to vote. The number of those who voted was much lower than those who registered. This saw a decline in the voter turn up that was registered at 60% of the total number of registered voters. This downslope was not unforeseen. Writers and political pundits have dissected the high level of ‘apathy’ among young people in Kenya and perhaps across Africa. In his New York Times article titled, ‘Young Kenyans Are Being Asked to Crown Their New Oppressor, and the Answer Is No, ‘Samira Salwani reports that ‘this is a political choice.’ I find that a fitting description.
The young people have chosen to distance themselves from voting and other political engagements as a protest, it is not Apathy. They are protesting the unfair systems that deny them opportunities, they are protesting blockades to their full involvement in political processes. These bulwarks are systematic, they bar young people from taking part in the governance of their society let alone competing fairly. In the 2017 elections in Kenya, 24% of the candidates vying for political office were young people aged below 35 years, and less than 3% won. The major reason for such dismal performances from young people can be attributed to the high monetization of politics, and the crippling political environment. Running for Office in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, and many other countries in Africa is a game of uncontrolled big spending. The less money one has, the fewer chances of winning. You could have the golden blueprint for the country, and no one will give you a mandate because your pockets are narrow. How does one expect a youth so hindered from access to economic empowerment, a youth barred from civic engagement, a youth so shackled with the heavy chains of poverty, to compete favorably? This is akin to clipping the bird’s wings and telling her to fly.
In South Africa, the economic depravity of young people, the sky-high levels of unemployment, and the corruption within the old guard among a myriad of reasons prompted the choice of boycotting the 2019 elections as a protest. The popular #IWantToVoteBut hashtag on social media and general boycott campaigns saw about six million eligible young people refrain from voting in the general elections. The message was in bold—the youth were tired of being part of a political maze that does not fulfill their needs and aspirations. To mention the least, a process that does not represent them in form and substance. To abstain, was to portray the incalculable frustration.
Whereas abstaining from voting is one of the indicators of growing youth discontent. There is general resignation from the youth. Many young people are less involved in community civic organizing. There is a decline in the students’ movements which were central to civic and political participation. It is understandable that young people are facing unprecedented economic burdens, and growing pressures that did not exist in the 20th Century or before. This has further kept them at bay in matters politics and civic action. The trajectory has signaled a disastrous trend in the governance of many African countries. Who is going to speak up against tyranny if not the young people? Who is to advocate for a progressive agenda if not the young people? What is the future of democracy on the continent without the vivacious input of the continent’s young? One is tempted to think of a dark tomorrow.
However, one’s pessimism is quickly counterpoised by the Nigerian story. The youth in Nigeria yet again showed us that there live a people resiliently pushing back against regression, despotism, and apathy. The youth in Nigeria exemplified this in the ‘ENDSARS’ movement.
Agitated by the brutality of an illegitimate police outfit ‘Special Anti-Robbery Squad,’ commonly referred to as SARS, the young people in Nigeria composing mainly young women, rallied the entire nation in the infamous ENDSARS movement. For days the youth planned and staged peaceful demonstrations that shock the political establishment in Nigeria. The Youth were driven by their frustration towards the government’s failure to ban the SARS which was a tool for inhuman treatment of people. It was a clear message that young people cannot be suppressed forever. The presence of women at the forefront enhanced the resilience of the movement, it also cast draw solidarity from the international human rights movement which saw this as an inclusive civic movement. Activists like Naira Marley, Folarian Falana, and DJ Switch used their social media to call for civic engagement of the youth in protesting against the unresponsive system to the inhuman treatment of people.
Nigeria’s young in the same ambit as the young of Tunisia, Tahrir Square in Egypt, and the young on the streets of Khartoum demonstrate to us that when the most populous and versatile constituency of a nation’s population rise, a lot can be achieved. Oppressive systems can be broken, people can be moved to change, effective change can be achieved, and history can be made for the better. Africa needs the young people at this point in her history to define what our generational mandate is. The continent, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, needs us, her young, to respond to the crises that plague our times; endemic corruption, state brutality, overstay in power, gross abuse of human rights, poverty, environmental destruction, and yes—another plague called youth Apathy.
Those evils are not giving up. Why should the youth!
Alex Martin Musiime
A young lawyer in Uganda