In dusty Dakar with its littered streets and heady smells of spice and goats, an astounding transformation is taking place. Faced with increasing impunity, violence and abuse of power, price hikes, power failures and the fatalism of society in general and the youth in particular, a small group of young men have committed themselves to the restoration of a civic political culture and an accountable government.
Demographically, Africa is the youngest continent. According to the African Union, about 65% of the total population are below the age of 35 years and more than 35% are between the ages of 15 and 35. It is projected that, by 2020, three out of four people will be on average 20 years old. This new generation largely consists of what South Africans refer to as the “born-frees”, those who have not experienced the direct consequences of colonialism and autocracy. It is increasingly apparent that this new generation is largely averse to politics – fewer young people vote or participate meaningfully in politics. A recent study published by the research project Afrobarometer states that African youths are 13% less likely to vote than their older counterparts.
Each year, about 10-million young people enter the labour market – at a time of unstable economic markets, reductions in aid, trade and investment and slowing global economic growth. We see greater in-equality in Africa than almost ever before. The youth face the daunting related challenges of unemployment, underemployment, a lack of skills and access to a relevant education as well as little access to health-related information and services, including those related to the diagnosis, treatment and care of those living with HIV. In South Africa, these trends have led to the strange duality that a more militant youth is emerging and demanding greater access to these services while largely avoiding formal political engagement.
A similar trend has emerged in Senegal with the increasingly authoritarian and corrupt government presided over by Abdoulaye Wade, but a small group of young men decided to mobilise and involve the youth to revitalise Senegalese democracy. They built their campaign on a strong sense of national pride and civic awareness. Their movement was launched in January last year and became known as Y’en A Marre, a phrase translated as “we are fed up” or “enough is enough”. The core group consisted of a hip-hop duo from the band Keur Gui of Kaolack and several journalists, who decided that change was urgently needed.
Y’en A Marre was the beginning of a greater involvement of the youth in politics and the movement became the mouthpiece of disaffected young people in the run-up to elections this year. Without significant funds, the group decided to do what they knew best – produce music. They created a number of songs in both French and local Wolof and used them to reach young people and spread the message that the government needed to work for the people.
Their best-known song, Abdoulaye Faux! Pas Forcé (Abdoulaye, don’t force it, give up!) became a rallying cry for all those opposed to Wade’s third term and received more than 70 000 hits on YouTube – impressive for a country in which only about 16% of the population has internet access. The movement campaigned, going door to door, and gave concerts in schools and at outdoor rallies to mobilise the people. It was responsible for registering more than 600000 youths on the country’s electoral roll.
Their music generated a wide response and to raise more money they sold their CD and T-shirts printed with “Y’en A Marre” and “Je Suis un Nouveau Type de Senegalais” (“We want a new type of Senegalese”). The shirts became a call to arms for young and old alike, a calling card for change.
Walking through the streets of Dakar three months after the March run-off election, in which Wade was unceremoniously removed from power, Senegalese people stopped to smile and speak to me in my Y’en A Marre shirt, discussing the movement with enthusiasm and pride.
But the group faced the wrath of Wade’s state. Its members were harassed and intimidated, but they would not back down or resort to violence. The movement also stubbornly refused to align itself to a particular political party or candidate, arguing instead that it would act outside of formal political parties to call for thorough change.
Indigent young men
Following Mack Sall’s win at the polls, his administration offered these indigent young men – in their scruffy clothes, caps and sneakers – important government positions, which they declined. Instead, the movement opted to stay out of politics and act as a sentinel of demo-cracy – to motivate the people and hold the government to account.
The booming young generation of Africa could learn much from this movement. Essentially, the lesson is to take ownership of the situation and play an active and positive role in the future of the communities and country.
Y’en A Marre has committed itself to working both beside and independent of the state to support community development initiatives to change urban culture, clean up urban spaces, combat coastal erosion, fight the HIV/Aids pandemic by becoming involved in community health projects and try to encourage peace and social mediation in the conflict-prone Casamance region. Finally, it is calling for a pan-African youth movement to engender change on the continent.
This movement should serve as an inspiration and example to youths of other African states to take ownership of the political space and thus of their own futures. It is important to remember that democracy is not an end but a constant process – and political participation and constructive social action are its best protection. As the young men of Y’en A Marre can attest, those who fall asleep in freedom may well wake up in slavery.
Nicole Beardsworth is a researcher for the governance and African peer review mechanism programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. This article was written after a conference in Dakar in June held by the West African Research Centre and the Institute for Defence Analysis. The author acknowledges the contribution made to the article by points arising from the discussions