The African Youth Should Drive Political Change

Sakah Bernard Nsaidzedze
Yaounde, Cameroon

According the United Nations Population Division, there were 1.2 billion youth aged 15-24 years globally in 2015, accounting for one out of every six people worldwide . The UNFPA (2014) says the world was home to 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24 during that year and the youth population is growing fastest in the poorer nations. In Africa the number of youth is growing just as rapidly. In 2015, 226 million youth aged 15-24 lived in Africa, accounting for 19 per cent of the global youth population . These figures become overbearing when one considers the category of young people up to 35 years old as in the context of Cameroon among other African countries. Despite the geometrically growing youth population across Africa and globally, youth continue to experience marked political exclusion and marginalisation when it comes to decision-making and policy implementation in their respective countries. It goes without argument that ‘Politics is a game of interest and the politicians retain the discretion of determining who gets what, when, where and how?’ 

But how best have African youth been able to actively participate in or reap the fruits of politics in proportion to their civic and political rights as citizens of their respective countries? It is rather unfortunate that the majority of youth are still entangled with the adage ‘Youth are leaders of tomorrow’! An adage that has been used by African politicians to not only delay, but also deny youth involvement and engagement in the exercise of their political rights! But who is better placed to reverse this situation and trigger proper youth participation in the political life of their countries in Africa?

It is disheartening to observe that despite all political discourse and political proclamations acknowledging youth challenges and consequent deprivation from the fruits of political life. The youth across Africa are yet to experience their share of their ‘national-political cake’ as often promised to them by politicians, especially during political campaigns.  For instance, how can we justify the fact that in a country like Cameroon with over 60 government ministers, no one is less than 50 years old, while out of 180 parliamentarians only 1 is below 40 years old not to mention even the case of the senate where the minimum age for senators is 40 years? As if not enough even the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Civic Education has over decades been managed by elderly people of age 50 years and above. Similarly, even most youth wings of political parties are led by so-called ‘youth from age 40 years and above’. All these prompt questions as to what role do youth play in the political life of their respective African countries? Does it mean that if one does not attend the age of 40, he/she cannot occupy any significant political position? 

Despite obvious youth ambitions, aspirations, dreams and struggles to progress towards higher realms of political spaces within their countries. Such hopes for the youth often are dashed due to some common youth challenges across Africa. For instance, the following challenges have for over the years impeded youth from accessing effective as well as proper participation in the political life of their countries. The challenges include, but are not limited to: 
  • Unemployment, 
  • Military Intimation, 
  • Fear of the Unknown, 
  • No Economic Empowerment (as politics needs money), 
  • Tradition (most elderly politicians still adhere to the saying ‘what an old man sees sitting down, a young man cannot see even if he/she climbs to the peak of the tallest tree’); 
  • Disunity among the youth, 
  • Lack of self-confidence, 
  • Gullibility of some youth, 
  • Co-optation, 
  • Young people as key actors during political campaigns (but they become victims during political rule), 
  • and Absence of strong institutions that promote meritocracy while at the same time curbing corruption, nepotism, tribalism and favouritism. 

Each of these challenges limits young people in different ways that all sum up to excessive exclusion of youths from political life in Africa.

As a direct or indirect consequence of limited youth participation in political affairs of their countries, the observed trend has been the increasing vulnerability of some youth for radicalisation into extremism, terrorism, and rebellious activities. All of which are detrimental to the development of various African economies as has been the case in Libya, Burundi and Northern regions of Cameroon for example. Similarly, Julius Malema’s political struggle has been connoted by the dominant South African political elites of the African National Congress (ANC) as rebellious and counter-productive to the state. How true such claims are remains a core subject for debate. As if this is not enough, certain challenges which are plaguing the youth (especially unemployment and idleness) have greatly influenced the increasing rates of promiscuity, thereby exposing them to further risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, STIs and unwanted pregnancies.The preoccupation thus remains as to how far most African countries would have developed had they devised better strategies to retain their educated and energetic youth populations within the industrial and political spaces of their respective nations. 
The Way Forward
Of course many analysts and youth themselves have appraised the political concerns of the latter across Africa for the past decades. They have proposed possible solutions to address the problems as well, but such proposals are yet to yield expected results considering the persistence of the precarious situation facing African youth. Despite the slow process of addressing youth concerns by most African governments and leadership, we cannot stay quiet or inactive towards clamouring for a befitting political future which is highly desired by most African youth. 

More importantly however, we continue to suggest some measures which appear most likely to trigger the political change that will be highly beneficial to young Africans. Unity among the African youth (both at home and in the diaspora) can be primordial in the struggle towards clamouring for political inclusion. There is a need for more inter-connectivity between youth across the continent to exchange ideas, strategies, experiences about success stories (as was the case of youth and their role in the recent political events in Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa, Burkina Fasso, etc), increased government investment and promotion of youth empowerment projects, entrepreneurship and political reforms that accommodate youth aspirations as well as leave better room for youth inclusion in politics and nation-building. 

It appears that for the most part African politicians, like most political elites, are best at proclaiming their intentions about addressing youth problems. But such exercises have proven to be more of political rhetoric if not mere political demagogy. It is obvious that the common saying ‘youths of today are leaders of tomorrow’ no longer attracts applause as the youth themselves now increasingly claim that they are ‘leaders now, today and tomorrow’! Additionally, in demanding their right to political participation, the youth argue that ‘there can be nothing for us/them, without us/them’ insinuating that every government and policy making body that claims to address youth concerns must involve and engage youth themselves. Hence, to quote from the current UN Secretary General- Ban Ki Moon, "youth are the torch-bearers of change in today’s world and obviously must play an indispensable role in accelerating efforts towards realization of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals envisioned to be realized by 2030". 

Similarly, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (The Chairperson of the African Union Commission) has reiterated that the Africa Agenda 2063 cannot be realized without the active and committed role of the African youth.  But how can African youth drive change across the continent if they are limited by their respective political spaces from contributing their own quota towards advancing the political, economic, social and cultural development of various African economies? 

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