/ 2 April 2024

Mobilise Africa’s youth for political change

18a06601 00 The Youth Need To Vote
This year's elections are pivotal for African youth to redefine themselves in the electoral process. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Against the backdrop of significant political shifts and recent and emerging popular coups in Africa, 2024 stands as an important year for the continent, with 19 countries gearing up for presidential and general elections. Coups in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea have set back democratic progress and the upcoming elections present an opportunity to rekindle democracy, and the youth have a key role to play in this.

According to the latest Afrobarometer data, young people are more likely than their elders to express dissatisfaction with democracy, mistrust elected leaders and consider military intervention against abusive leaders. Despite this, the youth’s influence on national politics remains limited. There’s a prevailing sense that traditional politics and representative democracy fail to resonate with younger cohorts, who often feel alienated from political processes.

It’s concerning that youth also register a higher percentage of dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy in their respective countries, especially at a time when democratic values seem to be diminishing across the continent. This dissatisfaction is compounded by issues such as unemployment, which ranks as one of the biggest problems facing young people, followed by concerns about economic management and healthcare.Additionally, governments receive poor ratings from the youth for their efforts in job creation. While in previous years, many African politicians have used the youth’s voting clout for their own political agendas, thereby exploiting Africa’s youth through the political process and making them susceptible to manipulation, particularly in electoral violence. This year’s elections are pivotal for African youth to redefine themselves in the electoral process.

Despite data indicating lower rates of political involvement among youth compared to their elders, it’s crucial for them to participate fully in all stages of the electoral process and ensure their voices are heard. Youth involvement can take various forms: as electoral contestants, administrators and voters. 

In a continent grappling with threats to peace and security, the participation of youth in electoral processes is essential for long-term stability and peace. Article 11 of the African Youth Charter underscores the right of young people to participate in all aspects of society. It outlines measures that states parties should take to promote active youth participation, including ensuring their presence in decision-making bodies, facilitating platforms for involvement at all levels of governance, ensuring equal access for young men and women, prioritising policies for marginalised youth, providing access to information, professionalising youth work, supporting youth organisations, promoting voluntarism, and including youth representatives in relevant meetings. By embracing these principles and actively involving young people, African nations can build a more inclusive and prosperous future for all.

The rise of technology presents an opportunity to bolster democratic governance through citizen involvement. Last year, the Office of the African Union Youth Envoy unveiled the Make Africa Digital campaign in seven countries. It advocates for digital transformation and bridging the digital divide. The AU youth envoy champions policies and political commitments aimed at amplifying the rights and participation of youth in decision-making processes.

Recognising the role of youth in both electoral processes and national development endeavours, the AU Commission, through the political affairs, peace and security department, in a joint initiative with the African Governance Architecture (AGA) Secretariat and the AU youth envoy, will this year host a continent-wide training aimed at youth participation in electoral processes. Equipped with requisite tools such as education and access to credible information, young people can participate in the socio-political discourse at the national level.

In the current year, the AU has set a target to increase the participation of young people in election observations to foster a generation of politically astute and actively involved citizens.

Chido Cleopatra Mpemba is the special envoy for youth at the African Union Commission and Nyasha Mcbride Mpani is the project officer for data for the Governance Alliance Project at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.