On a working trip to South Africa, I met with my good friend and mentor Brian Kagoro who was leading the organisation of the International Youth Forum (hosted by UNDP and UN Habitat). As it was now of character for Brian and I to do some continental reflection, we immediately started contemplating what a democratic revolution led by young people (Youth-o-lution)will mean for the future of Africa. What if decisions about young people were made by them and not for them? what if young women and men became the drivers of Africa’s destiny? or better still, what if within the youths themselves, an inter-generational coalition led the democratic process of Africa. As we went through the pros and cons of Africa’s Youth-o-lution, we began imagining what a Youth Led- Democracy will mean for Africa.
As Brian puts it, the question of under-development of African youth raises deep controversies about the confluence of modernity, culture, history, global and local injustices. Reinforcing these is the gendered nature of inequality and exclusion in many African societies. They are by no means exceptions in this regard.Equally so, it would be remiss not to note that it is after all an African country that has recorded the highest number of women that hold elective and appointive public office(Rwanda). That said , it is useful to note that all major religions that has engulfed Africa are largely partriarchal and dominated by senior black males. Most African traditional practices make a clear demarcation between the place of elders in decision-making as well as that of youth in obeying and implementing the wisdom of the elders.The space and place dichotomy based on no other merit but age typifies the stagnation of democratic development in several African countries. The illusion of experience and stability has justified the recycling of political elites who at a moral and technical level might be ill-suited to grapple with the challenegs of 21st Century Africa.
Modern society with its illusory claim of lberation has confiscated and sometimes annulled the human essence of African societies.Africans has embraced modernity without necessarily owning its definition and the processes of ensuring that it continuously develops to meet their objective and subjective developmental needs. Western institutional and epistermological fonts has been copied and applied without critical analysis or reflection. Africa has modernized governance without necessarily democratizing modernized African institutions and psyche. This super-imposition of archaic conceptions of power on inorganically fixed institutional types-in part – explains the convulsive mood that African countries have and continue to experience. Arguably African young people now have greater freedoms and greater rights and are more involved in decision-making. But such determinative power of choice conferrd upon persons who lack the economic means to sustain their own liberty has often meant an increase in poverty ,inequality, exclusion and anti-State sentiments and action. The destruction of a social ethos founded on mutual respect, inclusive development and social mores of the old order without any real modern equivalent defines the contours of Africa’s development quagmire and paradoxically the lovely continent’s real potential. We see in the place of traditional tyranny a modern contextual tyranny of poverty, inequality and social dislocation. A more inclusive social order that reinforces social inequality through non-inclusion in the economy.
The fragility in African economies has often translated into fragility in African governance generally. It is a fragility reinforced by external as well as internal factors. At its ugliest this fragility takes on an ethnic and religious zealots face. The wealth of a few is seen as the anti-thesis of the poverty of many.It is as much a fragility arising out of weak leadership and institutions at the national level as it is an out-come of irresponsible leadership and global economic governance systems , processes,policies and structures. Across Africa we witness victims of this global attempt to transact development and democracy in an ethical vaccuum guided by missionary commitment to technicist terminology and lens. The language of clients and services ignores the centrality of self-determining human agents and national/local institutions. Stability and equality requires much more than good services provided by efficient nation-States , it requires genuine participation and inclusion of the disenfranchised majority.
In almost every African country where I have worked Youth make up more than 60% of the population. On average African High Schools each year produce close to 15 300 000 graduates per annum who predictably join the reserve army of the unemployed and restless youth.Often unemployed, poorly educated, with slim long-term life options this future generation is forced into a life of crime or scavenging. Instead of becoming what Oliver Tambo characterized as “shocktroopers” of the revolution, African youth have become the mainstay of the status quo(or the mess that we are in). They are use by political merchants to transact electoral violence and other heinous crimes in the interests or one or other political big man. The ugliness of African elections has a youthful face. Well one can also argue that were it not for their desperate economic plight African Youth would not be useable as political canon fodder. Beyond the ugliness of political contestation Africa is witnesses the nastiness of religious fundamentalisms across the board from Nigeria to Somalia to Algeria, Egypt and South Africa. Hatred in the name of the Nation, the tribe or even God has become an escape route for many unemployed and impressionable youth.
The global food , fuel and financial crises has created a further layer of hopelessness for a continent whose youth are yet to escape the lure of western exploitation and harsh migratory conditions. More young people go to bed hungry everyday and a greater degree die of preventable diseases for want of medicines , access to clean drinking water and useable energy.
There are a myriad of structural and super-structural reasons that could explain the plight of youth in Africa today. But none is as important as the diminishing participation and leadership of youth in important political , economic and social decision-making within African communities. If this one is guaranteed then resourcing youth initiatives aimed at self-empowerment makes much more sense. Then youth employment makes plausible sense.
Imagining a youth-led democracy requires that we imagine a democracy that is open to innovative means and way of doing business. It also requires a sense of the future that is stronger than the present and the past. It requires inter-generational thinking. What this might mean for a bureaucracy like the United Nations, an LDC or Middle Income Country(MIC) or small island State(SIS) requires much more reflection and focus.
But let us dare to imagine Youth-led Democracy not as an abherration or an Island of the immature, but a congregation of the foresighted.