How representative is a representative democracy when it locks out a certain demographic strata of the very society under its jurisdiction? Equitable participation of different groups in politics and governance is essential to building and sustaining democracy, yet often, youth (and women), are grossly underrepresented. African youth, throughout the continent, face several obstacles to participating in political life and running for public office. This occurs despite their proven abilities as leaders, thinkers, and agents of change and their right to participate equally in democratic governance. Above all else, where we stand, the youth are barely allowed space to function in leadership and that is the crux of the problem.
From the onset, it is important to clarify that age has no overall relation with the most significant measures of democratic involvement and that is not what this piece is about. If anything, dissatisfaction among young people elicits all sorts of reactions including: popular pressure for better governance, politically instigated violence, cynicism, and indifference, which leads youth who are barely exercising their civic rights, let alone wanting to occupy leadership positions. Political involvement and political values cannot be ‘socialized’ or reduced to mere differentials in age, sex, ethnic groupings, and other relative categories. In fact, age is neither the sole, nor primary influence on political participation. The argument herein is purely for affecting democratic representation, in a way that allows policy implementation and decision making on matters that affect certain groups, by those groups themselves.
Unfortunately, the space reserved for youth in politics has often been used as an apparatus for politicians to stay in power through violence and to push for a violent political agenda. Most African youth wingers have gained notoriety for rabble-rousing and it is no wonder then, that the term youth wing, has generally come to be regarded as a substitute term for politician henchmen and thugs for hire. Worse still, in countries that easily slip into sedition, you have the perfect recipe for a vigilante outfit or militia, such as in Burundi. There has been little appetite to empower youth to occupy political spaces, instead they are patronized and manipulated as a means to an end and pawns in political violence.
If well executed, the involvement of youth in politics could be transformative. This is in the sense that youth are more often idealistic in their goals and do not have excesses of the past to bring with them to political positions. Considering this lack of loyalty to established traditions, prospects for change are higher. But even so, more often than not, the turnover of generations does not change how governments work, it only changes who rules. Loosely translated, people do not often change the system, the system changes them. As with most other things, it is a risk, albeit a calculated one. With this in mind, the involvement of youth in politics should be approached from an angle that aims to safeguard the system in such a way that fundamental political values are carried over, but rotten systems are not given a lifeline and longevity. It cannot be emphasized enough that any engagement must be meaningful and substantial. Agitation for youth participation in politics has to be much more than pushing young people into comfortable unions with bureaucratic systems.
The starting point should be: What positive differences are the youth offering that differs from what has been tried before? Arising from this, a mistake that is often made is approaching governance from an antagonistic standpoint whereby all the contenders have to offer is strong opposition with no alternative propositions. Politics is more than zeal; it therefore has to be approached from a genuinely positive democratic involvement for there to be progress. Going back to the question of manipulation, the young men recruited by militias across Africa mainly come from deprived rural districts where opportunities in socio-economic development are rare. It is no wonder then that they are attracted to the steady employment and economic opportunities offered by armed groups. Joining such outfits makes an attractive alternative to rural poverty and unemployment and in a great sense, provides camaraderie where people feel excluded from political power by the ruling elite. But let us not forget that the reason such manipulation is possible in the first place is that so many youth are socially and economically marginalized, thus making them prime targets for exploitation and radicalization.
With this in mind, the collective dialogue should then be tailored around youth empowerment, prosperity, and education; to make it an investment on sizeable discourse. This means teaching them skills, building their capacity to solve problems and communicate democratically, and be well informed about conflict resolution. Knowing about political systems, government centered issues, and other democratic realities around the world are vital topics that Africa’s youth deserve to fully understand. Above all, they need to be firmly rooted in the belief that political systems must not detract from the rule of good law. Only then can youth be engaged and sustained in politics.
That said, there have been growing concerns and conversations surrounding the perceived increase in the plurality of the African society compared against the relatively limited facets of representative democracy. Individual youth have overcome these obstacles with great acclaim, but for youth as a whole, the playing field needs to be leveled by opening opportunities for all. If anything, propping up a few youth into leadership positions to feed statistics can worsen the situation because it makes it look like much is being achieved when it’s merely the commercialization of youth involvement in politics into a low budget product, resulting in smoke and mirrors.
It’s interesting to note that when there were predictions of a youth bulge in Africa, it was considered a crisis and most projections spoke of impending instability and increased violent activity on the continent. It also says a lot if the youth are seen as the forefront of Africa’s economic demise and social bankruptcy. On the contrary, I hold the opinion that youth are a tremendous asset and that they deserve space as builders and defenders of democracy. It’s time for them to be taken as serious political actors and to become the same. Not only do they have an eye for tomorrow, but they also have to live in that tomorrow; they are therefore entitled to have a voice in making decisions that impact their future. Africa’s youth are the subject of development, not an object of development.
Ndunge Wayua is a self-professed African feminist, Pan-Africanist, and wildlife activist. As a human rights professional, she has had a vibrant career as part of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (Addis Ababa), The African Union (Burundi), and The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (Gaza strip). She regularly writes thought pieces on nonviolent conflict resolution, women’s rights, and African development. She invites passionate reformers to engage her, challenge her, and converse with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Ndunge Wayua and published on 27-March-2016