Hope for democracy: young people and politics in sub-Saharan Africa

George Kunnath, Regional Director, Africa and Europe

Sub-Saharan Africa has a youth population of 265 million. By 2045, the population of people under the age of 25 across the African continent is expected to rise by over 40%. Africa is full of young men and women with huge potential, eager to help build the continent’s future.

The continent’s young leaders are inspiring, ambitious and passionate. However, many of them are denied any real political voice or influence. Yet their role is essential in addressing the continent’s major problems of youth unemployment, underemployment and the lack of education, healthcare and basic social services.

According to the World Bank, Youth account for 60% of all African unemployed. While most African economies are growing, they are not growing fast enough to solve the problems of unemployment. The outlook is not much better for those in employment, as the region continues to report the highest youth working poverty rates globally at almost 70 %. The number of poor working youth has increased by as much as 80 per cent since 1991.

That’s why WFD is committed to supporting young people to engage in politics. To borrow the words of Mohamed Jalloh, who runs our programme in Sierra Leone: ‘we have a generation of young people facing the harsh realities of unemployment, limited space in decision making, exposure to sexual risks, crime, violence and a lack of opportunities for quality education. The energy, talent and determination of youth can be used to sustain development.’

“Despite making significant progress in the last five years, Sub-Saharan Africa continues to have the lowest levels of youth development in the world. All of the ten lowest-ranked countries in the 2016 Youth Development Index are from Sub-Saharan Africa.”

2016 Global Youth Development Index

The problems of unemployment are linked to education. Young people in Africa are receiving education in industries that have stagnated and have not kept up with global trends. Structural unemployment remains a major problem and governments need to start linking the education system to match the demands of the labour market.

Unless young people have a voice in the legislatures and the spheres of influence their needs will continue to be ignored until the problem spills over into conflict. Critical to giving the youth a place at the table is the reform of political parties to become more inclusive. Parties that offer the youth real leadership opportunities. This is a major challenge as the status quo has served the aging political elite well.

Yet, all is not lost in Africa. The youth of Africa has shown increased political awareness and a willingness to make their voices heard. Credit must be shown to youth of the Gambia who played a significant role in protecting the outcome of the 2016 elections. And let’s not forget, that in 2012 the Senegalese opposition mobilised the youth around the issue of unemployment to defeat President Abdoulaye Wade. Young leaders are waking up to realise that in a few years the youth vote will determine the outcome of every African election.

A window of opportunity exists to help mainstream youth into the governance structures of African countries. Unless the investment is made to support Africa’s youth, there is the ever-increasing risk that many will be led away into tribal, ethnic, religious or political conflict. That is why WFD’s Africa team considers strengthening youth political participation and inclusion as the key pillar of our African strategy.

As our Country Representative in Nigeria, Adebowale Olorunmola put it: ‘Democracy thrives when citizens, regardless of age, gender, and social status, are involved in decisions that affect their lives and the society they live in.’ This is why young leaders must get a seat at the decision-making table and why WFD programmes in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Uganda are working to do just that.

 

 

 

 

Photo: Jo-Ann Kelly

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