The months of February and March were both interesting and slightly turbulent for West Africa, with presidential elections taking place in Nigeria and Senegal. Both countries hold strategic importance and value for the sub-region, Nigeria as the economic powerhouse of the continent, and Senegal as one of its more stable democracies.
For seasoned observers, it was mostly more of the same with poor preparation and management by electoral management bodies; seasoned political candidates with more of the same policy promises; international commitment from traditional partners from the European Union (EU) and North America; and a large number of civil society situation rooms and targeted engagement with the fluid and complex electoral landscape. For the few that were new to this however, and who came to it with a fresh, and dare I say it, bolder perspective, there was less of the same and more opportunities to do things differently and especially challenge the status quo. This piece aims to highlight the ways in which younger Africans are engaging with electoral processes. In addition, draw our attention as to how this is different and perhaps more nuanced than we assume, and some questions this raises for our budding democracies. This is a useful lens for analysis because Africa's population is young, with 60% of the entire continent aged below 25. In West Africa, based on data sourced by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), this figure is expected to grow through 2035.
Young people are civically engaged and representation matters
In Nigeria, half of the registered voters were aged between 18 and 35, yet the main presidential candidates were in their 70s. The youth population, representing 51% of registered voters in the country, expressed disappointment at their voting options. “Anyone seeking an alternative - someone who, unlike the main two candidates, is not a well-known, elderly, northern Muslim man from the Fulani ethnic group - has been disappointed”. In Senegal, 70% of the voting population is less than 40 years old, with the average age being 19. The disappointment was the same in Senegal, with Ousmane Sonko, aged 44 years old contesting the presidency with four others in their 60s. The age dynamic is extremely important for a region with a majority of young voters; the average age of the presidential candidates was not representative of its youthful population who remained engaged in the process.
In Senegal, Sonko was carried by a mostly young vote and obtained 15% of all votes cast, thus positioning himself as a key figure in the Senegalese political scene. In Nigeria, YIAGA was able to mobilize many to engage the process, succeeding in getting the law changed to allow younger people access to political spaces. This resulted to, “in total, 1,515 youth candidates, representing 23% of all the candidates, contesting for seats in the National Assembly; Ten candidates or 14% of the Presidential candidates aged between 35–40 years; Eleven or 15% of political parties field[ing] candidates for the Vice Presidential position that were aged between 35–40 years; and Youth candidacy increase[ing] from 18% in the 2015 House of Representatives election to 27.4% in the 2019 House of Representatives elections.” Despite this, young Nigerians were left with having to decide between seasoned politicians during the presidential election. These figures indicate that young Africans are more nuanced in their decision-making than we assume. We might need to reconsider the myth of the apathetic youth. If we say that the youth are apathetic, are we asking the right questions? Do older seasoned candidates inspire young voters? Do their campaign promises resonate with younger voters who are the majority?
Social media and other internet platforms are powerful tools.
In Nigeria and Senegal alike, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and various mobile applications were widely used to share information, further improving engagement and participation in the process. Given the highly participatory nature of these platforms, they were used by various groups for political campaigns, mobilization of voters, engaging different segments of society in electoral debates, and widening the reach of civic engagement, voter education initiatives, and citizen/independent monitoring of elections. In Nigeria, CWCD Africa launched the Zabe mobile application as a civic tool that sought to deepen democratic participation. “Zabe.ng is an election monitoring app that provides a fast and better method of collating results. Citizen observers are expected to crowd-source the app with credible information on incidents, events, and results around them as they go about the election process.” Through this application, 10,000 citizen election observers were deployed across the country and the Zabe team indicated that approximately 87% of users were youth. In Senegal, the SenegalVote platform similarly deployed young independent observers to deploy real time information and was consistently quoted and celebrated by young users on Twitter. What is the impact of these tools on youth engagement in electoral processes? Given their wide reach, are these platforms regulated to protect against hate speech and fake news?
Women (young and otherwise) remain invisible in political leadership.
In both Nigeria and Senegal, women of all ages were present in online debates, polling units and situation rooms, representing their respective political parties. They appeared to play a support role – administrating, coordinating, and mobilizing others for efficient engagement in the electoral process. These numbers were however not reflected in the candidacies. In Nigeria, according to INEC, 47.4% of registered voters were women, and “the number of young female candidates in the 2015 general elections was below 20%, [and] this is even lower in the 2019 general elections.” In Senegal, women represent 43% of the national assembly and the country boasts leading female politicians, yet none was a candidate in the presidential elections. Why were there no presidential female candidates? Why are women still invisible in decision-making spaces?
It would appear that seasoned politicians depend on young candidates to mobilize their peers, but do not respect them enough to include them in decision-making, from the local level to the more national one. Africans need to join the rest of the world in interrogating the power and use of internet tools to ensure tailored and constructive responses. Ultimately, our mostly patriarchal societies and lack of transparency in politics are the main challenges with our electoral processes. Ideally, technical and financial partners should channel resources to tackling these, in addition to the standard capacity building for youth and women and civic engagement initiatives.
This piece certainly does not offer all the answers to the questions. However, as we reflect on these questions together, we can begin to interrogate the right issues. Ultimately, this needs to happen if we want to sustain the gains of our budding democracies – the future of this mostly young continent demands it.