Why Africa’s youth is not saving democracy

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Political Capital
Nic Cheeseman
By Nic Cheeseman

Every month 'Political Capital' tracks which leaders' political stock is rising, who is on the slide, and what this means for democracy and development. Focusing on the trends behind the headlines, Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) highlights the political power plays and events that will shape the future of Africa. He is Professor of Democracy at University of Birmingham and Author of 'How to Rig an Election'. Founder of www.democracyinafrica.org. Co-producer of Resistance Bureau.

Posted on Friday, 8 July 2022 11:00, updated on Thursday, 19 January 2023 14:09
People protest at Lekki Toll plaza in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Year after year, the quality of democracy has deteriorated in African countries. The continent’s 'presidents for life' show no signs of making way for the younger generation. This raises fundamental questions, such as: Why is Africa getting more authoritarian as it is getting younger?

Amidst a growing economic crisis and the arrest of opposition leaders in Sierra Leone, a young researcher took to Twitter promising that “We will do everything to uphold the fundamental principles of our democracy.”

He wasn’t alone. The young activists I talk to every day, from Sierra Leone to Zimbabwe and on to Nigeria and eSwatini, do not just prefer democracy – they are desperate for the rights, freedoms and opportunities it promises. This should be a boon for democratic consolidation. After all, it has become a cliche to say that Africa is an incredibly young continent. If young people are more likely to demand change, doesn’t this spell the end for old and out-of-touch authoritarian leaders?

Not so, however, as recent events tell a different story. There are exceptions of course. The election of Hakainde Hichilema in Zambia last year showed that young citizens can play a key role in driving political change.

By and large, however, the continent’s “presidents for life” show no signs of making way for a younger generation, despite the urgent need for new leaders with new ideas; and with repression on the rise, things will get worse before they will get better. So why is Africa getting more authoritarian as it is getting younger?

1. There is no such thing as the ‘youth’

It is common to pin great significance on the ‘youth’, particularly in Africa. Sometimes they are painted as a new generation of consumers who will accelerate economic growth.

Other times they are portrayed as a frustrated mass of unemployed malcontents ready to drive a new wave of crime and instability. Young citizens may also be depicted, in more optimistic thinking, as the vanguard of democracy who will reject old-fashioned ethnic politics and demand service delivery and accountability.

The fundamental problem with all of this is that there is no such thing as the ‘youth’. This is a notoriously slippery category, with different rites of passage leading to a transition to adulthood at different ages in different societies.

The fact that many youth leagues are led by individuals well into their 40s demonstrates this point only too well. As a 42-year-old, I’m inherently sympathetic to this kind of conceptual stretching, but it nonetheless highlights the limitations of expecting uniform behaviour from such a diverse community.

Youth parties are almost completely absent in Africa, for example, as they are in much of the rest of the world.

Young people also have an incredibly wide set of identities – just like the rest of us. They belong to certain ethnic groups, certain classes, and certain religions.

All of these identities may prove to have a stronger allure than that of ‘youth’ – not least because they are often more clearly defined.

This doesn’t mean that young people cannot come together to exert an influence at key political moments, as they did in Nigeria around the #EndSARS protests, and in eSwatini, where many student groups are bravely campaigning against the continent’s last constitutional monarchy. However, it does mean that it is very hard to sustain these kinds of political moments long-term.

This is one reason that youth movements rarely translate into organisations that re-shape the battle for political power. Youth parties are almost completely absent in Africa, for example, as they are in much of the rest of the world.

2. Don’t stop believing

We also need to be realistic: not all young people reject authoritarianism. Survey data suggests that younger citizens are more likely to be tolerant of different kinds of lifestyles – which is good news for women’s and LGBTQ+ rights in the future – but are not necessarily more likely to support democracy.

Afrobarometer data based on nationally representative surveys of almost 50,000 people across 34 African countries reveals a startling truth: young people are less likely to support democracy than their older counterparts. In the latest round of surveys from 2019/2021, 66% of respondents aged between 18-25 said they preferred democracy to any other form of government. This was the lowest figure of any age group.

High levels of disaffection has contributed to an increase in youth emigration

One reason that young people may be less sympathetic to democracy – despite the great work done by many youth activists – is that the frustration of operating in largely gerontocratic societies makes them particularly deflated. Although young people don’t report being more likely to go without a cash income, almost 70% believe that their government is handling youth issues badly. In turn, high levels of disaffection have contributed to an increase in youth emigration, often referred to as a ‘brain drain’.

Another reason may be that younger people do not remember the economic and social pain of life under authoritarian rule, and so are less concerned about the decline of democracy. Those aged 18-25 are less likely to say they disapprove of military and one-party rule than any other age group.

Older voters may be more ‘small c’ conservative then, but those that remember the struggle to reintroduce multiparty politics are more likely to be democrats.

3. Increasingly assertive, but still disempowered

Even if the youth all wanted to promote democracy, it’s not clear they could do so. Lacking resources and status, and having had less time to get their identification papers sorted, young people are less likely to be on the electoral register and hence to vote.

Given this, young people have to be particularly creative to shape the political debate. Evidence of this dynamism is on display in every country on the continent, fuelling innovation and creating new opportunities for self-expression. When resistance becomes organised and effective, however, it is often taken over or banned.

A lot of the research on youth organisations, from protest groups to vigilante gangs to okada drivers, has stressed the capacity of powerful political actors to co-opt and ultimately demobilise potential challenges from below.

William Reno has traced the history of groups, such as the Bakassi Boys and Oodua People’s Congress in Nigeria, to explain the “general failure of reformist insurgencies.”

He argues that the “cause of this failure is found in the legacy of patronage politics, especially the strategies of rulers who monopolised economic opportunities as a way of controlling people.”

More recently, Daniel Agbiboa explains how the young men who manage minibus taxi routes are often co-opted, via transport unions, into the networks of the ruling party. Agbiboa points out that this has a doubly problematic effect: a potential force for change is subverted and used to reinforce the repressive control of those in power, while transport unions become increasingly predatory, emboldened by their protection by the state.

Similar challenges have faced student groups, which have played a critical role in driving political change, from the Soweto uprising during the fight against apartheid to the reintroduction of multiparty politics in Kenya, but which often face harassment and infiltration. Only last week, a former student leader complained to me that the student movement in his country was weaker than at any point in the past 30 years, because – in part – many leaders saw it as a stepping stone to lucrative government positions rather than as a means to create a better country.

This raises a series of critical questions. How can pro-democratic young people inspire their friends to reject authoritarianism? How can new movements that challenge incompetent governments be protected from co-optation and subversion? How can the different strands of youth politics be brought together to empower young citizens in a way that also strengthens democracy? Unless answers to these questions can be found, and soon, Africa’s status as the world’s youngest continent will deliver no democratic dividend.

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