Ask members of the African political elite, civil society activists or anyone else about the role of youth in national development and you will hear a lot of profound, if trite, catchphrases, such as "The youth are the future; they are the leaders of tomorrow." African leaders even declared 2009-18 the African Youth Decade. Before that, in 2006, they adopted the African Youth Charter, with one of the goals being to lure younger people into participating in political debates and decision-making processes.
But African youth are no longer enthusiastic about an occasional show of love. Now they want a real engagement with the political elites. They said so during a three-day youth conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in November 2012, when they met to discuss their participation in democracy. Organized by the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the UN Development Programme and the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Sweden-based pro-democracy organization, youth representatives from across the continent resolved at the conference to prepare themselves for future leadership roles. While pinning hope on democracy's promise, they demanded meaningful dialogue with older leaders and called for "increased youth participation in governance."
Catalysts for social change
Just two years ago, during the Arab Spring, young people mobilized for human rights and justice, in the process toppling autocratic leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. They have also taken part in more abhorrent activities, such as in the debilitating wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, post-election violence in Kenya and other types of conflict.
Such cases show that youth can make, strengthen or break a system. But if they have a choice, they would rather be catalysts for positive social change than agents of strife, writes Shari Bryan, vice-president of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US non-profit organization that promotes democracy. Yet African youth do not always get a chance to make that choice, which stirs their deep anger. Simply put, if they cannot join the system, they may be tempted to destroy it. "Extreme outcomes of political violence have been found to be more associated with autocratic regimes where the youth may resort to violence as a consequence of exclusion from certain pathways to social mobility and engagement in the political process," argue Danielle Resnick and Daniela Casale in a research paper for Afrobarometer, an independent, non-partisan project that conducts public opinion surveys in Africa.
Chinua Akukwe, an Africa expert who teaches at George Washington University in Washington, DC, adds that without political participation, young people can easily be manipulated. "Unemployment and exclusion from decision-making processes render them hopeless and desperate."
Although African governments have created many plans and frameworks to foster their political inclusion, youth are grumbling loudly. Ms. Bryan explains in her paper that both younger and older members of the political elite understand they have to engage with each other, but that such engagement does not happen naturally. "It will require a facilitated, action-oriented approach that gives young people the skills to create projects that will allow them to introduce ideas and solutions directly into the political system," she writes.
Such action-oriented approaches have been tried before. In a paper published by UN University Press, Gregory Lavender recalls that past African leaders such as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah and Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta tapped young people's creative energies while crafting economic, political and social transformation plans in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s and 1980s, continues Mr. Lavender, many African countries had begun implementing structural adjustment austerity measures, which included sharp budget cuts in sectors that normally benefit young people, such as education, health and job creation. "There was therefore a breakdown of youth as a meaningful transition period to adulthood," he writes.
Wind at their backs
In recent years, however, African youth, like those in other parts of the world, have appeared to have the wind at their backs. Massive improvements in means of communication have enhanced their influence. In the past, African governments controlled most of the electronic media, giving them considerable leverage over public opinion, note Ms. Resnick and Ms. Casale. With the growing popularity of the Internet and the accelerating speed of communications, this influence has waned — some even believe it has been wiped out. US president Barack Obama's 2008 election campaign, which was mostly led by young people, was an awakening. So was the Arab Spring, with young people organizing via Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. During Kenya's 2008 elections they used technology to map and report election-related violence in real time.
More and more African governments would now like to see young people get into politics. In 2008, the Rwandan government asked the NDI to develop a programme to help its youth play important roles within political parties. The Mano River Union (Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea) has a Youth Parliament that enables young people to deliberate and set their own agendas for their governments' consideration. Kenya's ruling parties, the Party of National Unity and the Orange Democratic Movement, have introduced a national youth leadership programme to "integrate the youth in leadership today not tomorrow" through the promotion of "innovative community-driven development and youth entrepreneurship initiatives."
After his re-election in 2012, President Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone appointed two people in their early thirties to the cabinet. To support these youngest-ever cabinet members, Sierra Leonean youth mobilized with singing and dancing in front of the parliament building during their confirmation hearings. With elections expected in 13 African countries in 2013, older politicians are seeking out creative, tech-savvy youth to assist in get-out-the-vote operations, reports the NDI. Voting age controversy
Meanwhile, some are campaigning to lower the voting age to increase youth participation. Harvard University professor Calestous Juma, who is from Kenya, argues that while most African countries have set 18 as the minimum voting age, some of those between the ages of 12 and 18 work and are active in political discussions through social media. "Lowering the voting age to 16 for all African countries would not only reflect the demographic structure of the continent," says Mr. Juma, "but it would also expand political participation." Mr. Juma's proposal is a controversial one, and he admits that lowering the voting age could expand meaningful political participation only if "accompanied by formal and political education." He wants older leaders "whose worldviews were shaped by more traditional societies" to be educated about the roles of young people in the modern world.
A survey of young people carried out in 2012 as part of a UN action plan on youth identifies political leaders' ignorance and indifference to youth matters as key concerns. It adds that this ignorance and indifference make leaders unlikely to "support youth branches of political organizations." That same year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outlined a number of actions that world leaders should take over the next five years. Those included addressing climate change, forging and implementing a consensus framework for sustainable development, and working with and for women and young people. Clearly the momentum is with youth. At the Addis Ababa conference, they promised to "organize through the power of ideas" and push their desire to be at the decision-making table. Professor Akukwe urges current political leaders to bring young men and women into the mainstream of Africa's political life. That is the best down payment on Africa's development, he says.