DW | Throughout much of Africa, young people still have no say in politics. In 2018, elections will be held in Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Guinea. However, generational renewal is not in sight. DW examines why.
Be it Cameroon, Zimbabwe or Guinea, African leaders are apparently not thinking about retirement. Cameroonian President Paul Biya is 85 years old and Guinean President Alpha Conde, 80. At 75, Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa is still the youngest of the bunch.
“African countries have the largest gap between the age of their leaders and the age of their youth and there doesn’t seem to be any major transformation to shift the leadership to the younger generation any time soon,” said Zachariah Mampilly, a professor of African Studies at Vassar College in the United States.
Discontent is widespread among young people in Africa. “We are being ruled by senile leaders,” said the Zimbabwean activist Linda Masarire. The 35-year-old has already fought against former President Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime. She is not at all impressed by his successor, Mnangagwa. Masarire believes that old politicians ignore the needs of young citizens.
“We have people who are around 35, 37, 40 years old who have never worked in their lifetime, who never had a pay slip, who do not have social security,” she said. “Many people are abusing drugs because they are hopeless, and their future is futureless.”
Zimbabwe is not the only place with a bleak outlook for Africa’s young generation. Two hundred million people on the continent are between 15 and 24 years of age. They account for 60 percent of all those who are unemployed in Africa. Many of them who have jobs belong to the working poor, which means they cannot live off their earnings.
Change from the outside
Masarire is no longer willing to accept the situation. Parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe are slated for September 2018. She intends to run as an independent candidate. Together with like-minded people, she plans to create a party for the young generation. However, many Zimbabweans youth are scared of political involvement, be it in the governing party or the opposition.
“There is a lot of violence in our political parties in Zimbabwe, regardless if it is the ruling party or the opposition,” she explained. “A lot of young women cannot cope with that, there is lot harassment and all that. Young people at the end of the day do not have a chance to be at the peak of political decision making or government structures in Zimbabwe.”
Job Shipulululo from Namibia has also had bad experiences. The 30-year-old political scientist was once a board member of the ruling party’s youth wing. Today, he and his organization Affirmative Reposition fight against poverty and corruption. Even his own party is not spared. A court ruling made it possible for him to remain a member of the party.
“When young people stand up, [party members] ask you, ‘Where were you when we fought for independence?’ They ask for your credentials in the struggle irrespective of your level of education, irrespective of your transparency, irrespective of what you want to do,” he said.
More and more protests
Many young Africans seem to no longer believe in party politics. According to a survey conducted by the pan-African research network Afrobarometer, just under 65 percent of 18- to 35-year-old Africans voted in the last elections in their country.
“I think that young people feel that the ballot box is insufficient and they have good reasons to feel disillusioned, but that does not mean that they are apathetic, it means that they look for alternative means to make their voices heard and then protest becomes a mechanism for that,” said Mampilly.
In 2015 and 2016, large-scale protests were held in almost half the countries in Africa. In Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, young people repeatedly demonstrated against unpopular presidents. In Senegal and Burkina Faso, protesters managed to get rid of authoritarian leaders. Those nations aside, however, protests are rarely successful.
“The great risk is that you cannot predict how any protest will play out and often times when these young people take to the streets; it is heart-wrenching to watch these young, talented individuals going out to the streets and being confronted with overwhelming military force in most occasions,” said Mampilly.
The African Union has officially recognized the problem. The African Charter was adopted in 2006. The African Youth Decade runs from 2009 to 2018.
But Linda Masarire just sees this all as lip service, and believes young people have a responsibility to hold incompetent political leaders accountable. “We cannot allow a continent so rich in resources to suffer,” she said. “We finally need competent leaders who are serious about development in Africa.”