Working Paper 14: African youth participation is crucial to building democratic societies

Among the greatest causes for African youth should be to defend democracy, deepen it and continuously breathe life in it. Democracy should be seen as a public good – a resource that everyone should have an equal right to everywhere. No one should be excluded from being part of a democracy or receiving its benefits.

Democracy is not only about elections, voting and democratic institutions. Citizens must actively participate in decision-making, make their voices heard and hold elected and public officials accountable.

But the great challenge is to bring democracy into every aspect of life, not only in public life but in intimate relationships and personal interactions with others, which should be based on equality. In short, to democratise every aspect of life. A democratic culture is one where widely shared democratic beliefs, values, and commitments shape how individuals and the society act’.

An essential pillar of democracy is for citizens, especially the youth, to become active democratic citizens who behave democratically in all aspects of their everyday life. Former UN General Secretary Koffi Annan said: “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth.

Across the globe, countries have an undeclared war between those who support democracy and the forces of authoritarianism. There is also a global war, the equivalent of a Cold War, between countries which are autocratic and those which are democratic. The fight for democracy could be likened to the fight against colonialism and corruption.


Rise of a new generation of young African political leaders who are constraint by patriarchy

The ideology of patriarchy is entrenched in all of Africa’s governance systems:  traditional systems, religious systems, communal beliefs, and party systems. Patriarchy is based on gender inequality, social status inequality between elites and ordinary citizens and discrimination against the youth. There has been a rise across the continent of new progressive young leaders who are pro-democracy; however, they have constrained patriarchy in societies.

Abiy Ahmed, the 44-year Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is the cream of the crop of a new generation of progressive, younger pro-democracy leaders. Abiy was the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Although Abiy hit a bump in his handling of the uprising in Ethiopia – and could have handled so much better, he remains one of Africa’s most formidable leaders.

In 2020, Vera Daves de Sousa, then 33, was appointed the finance minister of Angola, in one of the most eye-catching across the continent, where Cabinet Ministers are often geriatrics. It was also surprising since former cadres of the governing MPLA dominate Angola’s top government and state-owned company leadership, most of whom are now elderly. João Lourenço, the president of Angola, shocked the world when he appointed de Sousa and many younger leaders, including women, into his Cabinet and into senior positions in government.

In Uganda, long-standing autocratic leader Yoweri Museveni virtually stole the 2020 elections from his challenger, the charismatic Bobi Wine, the 39-year-old whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi. Wine, a popular former rapper and opposition MP, was arrested, tear-gassed and shot at during the campaign trail. He was charged with treason, which was later dropped. During protests in November 2020 against Wine’s arrest, the security forces killed 54 people. In the heat of the presidential campaign, Wine and his wife were not allowed to leave their home by soldiers.

Museveni used Covid-19 social distancing laws to ban opposition party rallies, meetings, and protests. Lawyers have been jailed, journalists shot, and civil society activists arrested. Election monitors have even been charged for pointing out irregularities in the run-up to the elections.

In Zimbabwe, Nelson Chamisa, the 42-year, has been a leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC Alliance) since 2018 and has challenged the ruling Zanu-PF government of Emmerson Mnangagwa. The MDC Alliance since its name in January 2022 to Citizen’s Coalition for Change (CCC). The CCC convincingly won 19 parliamentary seats out of 28 on the ballot in by-elections in March 2022, with Zanu-PF taking the remaining nine (RFI 2022).

In South Africa, the 40-year-old Mmusi Maimane led the official opposition Democratic Alliance before resigning after poor electoral results in the 2018 national elections. Maimane has now established the One South Africa Movement and is planning to contest the 2024 national elections as an independent. Julius Malema, the 39-year-old leader of the left-populist Economic Freedom Fighters, is another prominent young political leader.

Rania Al-Mashat, a respected economist, is Egypt’s Minister of International Cooperation. She advised the post-Arab Spring government before she moved to the US to work as an advisor to the International Monetary Fund’s Chief Economist (Demand Africa n.d). Al-Mashat is one of the few technocratic leaders in Cabinets on the continent. Kamissa Camara is Mali’s Minister of Digital Economy and Planning. Prior to that, she was Minister of Foreign Affairs, the youngest and first woman to be appointed to the position.


African youth have often been used by authoritarian movements to undermine democracy

Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PFs, between 1982 and 1987, used youth members in a campaign called “Gukurahundi” to attack the opposition, Zapu supporters and Ndebele speakers perceived to be supporting Zapu. Zanu-PF was and is dominated by Shona speakers. More than 20 000 civilians were murdered.

Zanu-PF used the same tactic – mobilising their youth supporters into a militia to attack new opposition parties that emerged from 1990 onwards. In the 1990 elections, the Zanu-PF youth militia attacked the Zimbabwe Unity Movement with deadly violence. When in 1999, the Zimbabwean Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) embarked on mass strikes and protests against the Zanu-PF government to oppose the subversion of human rights abuses, the lack of basic freedoms and the lack of democracy, Zanu-PF used its youth militia to attack trade unionists. The Movement for Democracy Change, the opposition party launched in 2000, was similarly attacked by the Zanu-PF youth militia.

In the Sierra Leone civil war between 1991 and 1999, youth were forcefully recruited by belligerents into their militias. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by Foday Sankoh, who opposed multiparty politics, launched a violent takeover of the government of President Joseph Saidu Momoh for control of the country’s lucrative diamond industry and forced youths into his army.

Civilian rule was reinstated in Sierra Leone in March 1996, and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected in elections. However, Kabbah was forced out in a coup by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which also used youths and children as “soldiers”. The United Nations intervened after Kabbah was ousted and secured a peace agreement in July 1999 between the government and the Revolutionary United Front, and subsequently a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Charles Taylor launched an insurrection against the Liberian dictator Samuel Doe in December 1989, which unleashed a terrifying civil war in which more than 200 000 were killed, and more than a million people displaced. From 1991 to 1996, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) brokered 14 peace accords to restore peace. All sides in the conflict used youth and children as soldiers.

Taylor was elected president in the 1997 following elections. However, in 1999, armed opposition attacked Monrovia, the capital, plunging the country into renewed conflict. Again, youth and children were forced to become soldiers by the belligerents. In 2003, the government, opposition parties and main rebel groups signed a peace agreement. The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation established after the civil war condemned the forced recruitment of youth and children by all groups in the conflict to participate in acts of violence.

Youths were the majority of the combatants in the Ivory Coast civil war that followed the 2000 elections and erupted again in the 2010 elections after the first violent outbreak ended in 2007. Alassane Ouattara was removed from the presidential ballots in the Ivory Coast’s 2000 election because of his ethnicity. His rival Laurent Gbagbo won the election.

Ouattara supporters protested, and the country erupted into violence along ethnic lines between Quattara and Gbagbo supporters, splitting the country into Quattara-supporting Muslim north and a Gbagbo-supporting Christian south, continuing into a civil war in 2002. The civil war ended in 2007. It sprung up again in the 2010 elections when Ouattara and Gbagbo ran against each other. Ouatarra was declared the winner, but Gbagbo refused to step down, and the civil war resumed.

Islamist religious fundamentalists groups that are proliferating in the Sahel region, the area between the Sahara Desert in the north and the Sudan Savanna in the south, including areas such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Niger, Sudan, South Sudan, Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, have mainly used youth as their foot soldiers.

With its foothold in East Africa, Somalia’s Al Shabaab is one of Africa’s deadly Islamic religious fundamentalist groups, carrying out suicide bombs against governments and civilians. It has caused mayhem in East African countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the Horn of Africa, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

Boko Haram, launched in 2002, has been fighting to establish an Islamist caliphate in northeast Nigeria. All the countries in the Lake Chad region in central Africa, Chad, Niger, Benin, Cameroon, and Nigeria, where Boko Haram are increasingly gaining a foothold – and the countries in the Sahel where Al Shabaab are dominant, are appallingly poorly governed – pushing the excluded youth into religious fundamentalism.

Youth have also been press-ganged into the militia of violent Christian fundamentalist groups. The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is Africa’s oldest Christian fundamentalist group, started in 1987 in northern Uganda by Joseph Kony to fight Yoweri Museveni. The conflict has spilt into the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and South Sudan.

According to UNICEF, the LRA has abducted more than 30 000 children and youth in Uganda, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan to use as soldiers, sex slaves and servants (UNICEF 2005). The violence unleashed by the LRA has displaced more than 3 million people. Kony wants to establish a strict Christian fundamentalist government in Uganda.

In South Africa, youth have been mobilised by populists to attack African foreigners, claiming they take away jobs and housing and are responsible for local crime. Young South Africans have, in a social media campaign called Operation Dudula, led by instigators such as Nhlanhla “Lux” Dlamini, attacked foreigners for being responsible for the crime. Youth were recruited in the campaigns to attack foreign-owned small businesses in Durban and foreign-driven truckers. Instead of holding the government accountable for the lack of public service delivery, corruption, and mismanagement, which leads to job losses, lack of public housing and breakdown in the rule of law which leads to rising crime, populists blame foreigners.


African youth have pushed out undemocratic leaders and regimes

It is often lamented that young people in Africa do not participate in democracy, stay away from voting and often do not participate in political party activities. This is not entirely true. Youth across the African continent have often been at the forefront of campaigning for democracy, mainly forcing out authoritarian regimes and leaders and forcing democratic change.

During the August 2021 elections in Zambia, the young people turned out in record numbers – the largest since the first multiparty elections in 1991. The record turnout by the youth, which mainly voted for opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, gave him a landslide victory against the incumbent, Edgar Lungu, who was seeking a second term. Lungu was accused of corruption, incompetence, and authoritarianism.

In October 2020, the youth played a crucial part in civil society by electing the opposition to power in Seychelles for the first time since the end of colonialism. Youth, civil society, and opposition groups rallied behind the presidential candidacy of Anglican Priest Wavel Ramkalawan in presidential and parliamentary elections in which he defeated President Danny Faure, whose United Party (or United Seychelles) came to power in a coup a year after Britain granted independence to the Indian Ocean archipelago of 115 small islands in 1976.

In 2019, youth mobilised in mass protest to force out long-standing leader Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who had been in power since 1999. In 2019, the youth also pushed out Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir who had been in control of Sudan since 1989. The 22-year-old Alaa Salah, dubbed “Kandaka” or Nubian queen, a title given to Nubian queens of ancient Sudan, who played leading roles in society, became the symbol of the opposition to al-Bashir. Salah achieved stardom on the internet after leading protests, standing atop a car, and singing songs.

“Sudanese women have always participated in revolutions in this country,” Alaa Salah said in an interview after she went viral (AFP 2019). “If you see Sudan’s history, all our queens have led the state. It’s part of our heritage.”

In 2011, youth, including rappers, launched the Y’en, a marre movement, in Senegal to get the youth to vote and to oppose a third term for then-president Abdoulaye Wade. The Y’en a marre movement used rap music, Facebook, and SMS as platforms for expression, mobilisation, and meetings. In 2013, youth groups in Burkina Faso established the Le Balai Citoyen, following this example, to bring the youth’s voice into politics. The Burkina youth 2014 successful pushed out President Blaise Compaoré when he attempted to extend his presidency beyond constitutional limits.

In 2016, youth groups in the Democratic Republic of Cong also mobilised around a platform called Filimbi, meaning whistle in Swahili, and LUCHA (lutte pour le Changement – fight for a change) to prevent President Joseph Kabila from standing for a third term. Filimbi encouraged Congolese youth to perform civic duties, push for democratic reform, oppose human rights abuses and corruption, and even donate blood.

During the Arab Spring Uprisings in North Africa, which started in 2010, youth mobilised to push out authoritarian leaders and regimes or force a democratic change in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco.

Mobilisation by the youth pushed out African liberation and independence movements that had been in power for long periods but delivered very little for ordinary citizens while enriching the liberation and independence elites.

Youth mobilised in the late 1980s to force Zambia’s independence party,

United National Independence Party and its leader Kenneth Kaunda, which misgoverned the country, called for multiparty elections in 1991, which the opposition won on the back of mass mobilisation by disgruntled youth. In South Africa, the rebellion of township youth was instrumental in forcing the apartheid government to eventually un-ban opposition movements, release imprisoned activists and start negotiations to end the apartheid system in 1990.

The youth was also crucial in forcing the African Party for the Independence of Cape Verde (PAICV), the ruling liberation movement in Cape Verde, to end its one-party state and call for multiparty elections. Following the collapse of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s, the youth and civil society organisations embarked on mass local street protests, calling for democracy, forcing the PAICV to introduce constitutional changes, democracy, and multiparty politics (Meyns 2002; Baker 2006; Pereira, Nina, and Delgado 2019). Civil society organisations formed an umbrella political organisation, the Movement for Democracy (MPD), in April 1990, calling for multiparty elections, which the PAICV agreed to, and which the MPD won in the 1991 elections.


Competing African governance systems to democracy

South Africa and many African and developing countries have competing governance systems for democracy, such as customary law, sharia law and military law. Many African traditions, customs and communal beliefs have undemocratic dimensions contradicting democracy. Furthermore, African governing liberation and independence adhere to their party constitutions daily – which often contradicts the country’s democratic constitutions.

Since the end of colonialism, African-style populism has become a competing ideology for democracy. African-style democracy has not only undermined democracy building but has also increased ethnic divisions and retarded development. In African-style populism, minorities, non-nationals, foreigners, or former colonial powers are often blamed for self-inflected governing failures. In African-style populism, there is often a scapegoating of one ethnic community for the lack of advancement of another community. Furthermore, in many African countries, political parties are organised along ethnic, religious or regional lines. Whenever one ethnic, religious, or regional group has national political power, they often exclude others. Sadly, voters often also vote along ethnic, religious and regional lines.

All these competing governance citizens, which determine the behaviour of ordinary African citizens, are often deeply anti-democratic, authoritarian, and based on unequal citizenship. Many African traditional systems, religious systems, communal beliefs, and party systems are based on patriarchy, gender inequality and social status inequality between elites and ordinary citizens.

Some countries have ruling regimes that subscribe to ideologies opposed to democracy, such as Marxist-Leninism, varieties of African socialism or communalism and populism. These authoritarian governance systems undermine the introduction and deepening of democracy in these societies.

In many African countries, governing parties and leaders prioritised ethnic groups, religion, or region, marginalising the rest and causing widespread resentment among those left out, undermining democracy. Scapegoating one ethnic, religious, or regional community for the lack of advancement of another community is sadly a recurrent phenomenon across the continent. Needless to say, young people must fight these undemocratic governance systems, communal and cultural socialisations, and populism, which undermine democracy.

In many African countries, democracy is viewed very narrowly that if a country has supposedly regular ‘free and fair elections, it is enough to designate such a country a democracy. Most authoritarian African countries which have regular elections are patently not democracies.

Since the end of colonialism and, more recently, apartheid, democracy has always been contested in Africa. Many liberation and independence movements of the postcolonial anti-democracy school arguing that democracy should be shelved to focus on development first appear to be on the rise again.

Key arguments in the African postcolonial anti-democracy school are the argument that democracy is allegedly “unAfrican”; and those countries need “strong” leaders who should be in power for long periods to supposedly embed “transformation”. Again, all the countries with so-called “strong” leaders in Africa have collapsed into failed states, ethnic violence and breakdown.

Another argument against democracy made by anti-democratic groups in Africa is that democracy allegedly increases divisions in ethnically diverse societies because election campaigning in Africa has become so ethnically divisive. Yet, it is not democracy that causes ethnic divisions. It is selfish leaders who campaign based on ethnicity.

More recently, the rising economic power of autocratic states such as China, Rwanda, and Saudi Arabia, which have rapidly developed without democracy, has tempted many ruling parties, leaders, and ordinary citizens across the world to say democracy does not have value wrongly, that democracy is not necessary for development, or worse, that democracy undermines development.


Development without democracy is not sustainable

The autocratic countries that developed without democracy, such as China, Saudi Arabia, and Rwanda, keep opposition to their authoritarian governments silent by providing economic development as widely as possible to society while crushing dissent.

Even in countries in which dictators initially brought development – sooner or later, as the society gets more affluent, they demand more rights, and unless more rights accompany the development, people will eventually uprise– this was the case of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Libya, or Brazil during the military regimes of the 1980s.

Governments in countries such as China, Saudi Arabia and Rwanda may appear impregnable because of their authoritarian-led development; unless they introduce democracy in the future, they will also in the future collapse like the USSR.

Development can happen in any regime if they focus on industrialisation, which focuses on manufacturing new products their countries and the world need, spreading the benefits of development as widely as possible, keeping corruption at bay and appointing the best talent to manage growth.

African countries that pursued development without democracy in the post-Second World War period have mostly plunged into civil war, country breakdown and failed states. The few African countries who did try to pursue democracy and development together, however, unevenly have done better.

The opposition against democracy in Africa has been the main reason African countries failed to build quality democracies, foster inclusive development and secure peace. The African countries that have, since the end of colonialism, pursued democracy, such as Botswana, Mauritius, Cape Verde, and more recently Tunisia, have done comparatively better than all the undemocratic African countries.


Democracy is crucial to development, economic growth, and poverty reduction

Nevertheless, Dani Rodrik, the Turkish economist, is one of those who has shown, in his ground-breaking research, that democracy is not only compatible with growth and poverty reduction but may be crucial to both. Researchers Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle and Michael M. Weinstein (2005) used 40 years of empirical data across developing countries to show that poor democracies do better than poor autocracies on nearly every economic measure.

Their research “offers evidence that democracies are more stable: they are less likely to fall into armed civil conflict, experience humanitarian catastrophes, or breed international terrorists than are authoritarian countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan”.

The most recent Bertelsmann Transformation Index showed that of the 137 developing and transition countries surveyed, only 67 are still considered democracies, and the number of autocracies had increased to 70.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries introduced strict lockdowns, which have curtailed certain democratic rights such as the imposition of quarantine, limiting freedom of movement, increased surveillance, and the use of technology to track the movements of people. Harsh Covid-19 restrictions – which in many countries continued afterwards, have contributed to a decline of democracy worldwide.

With exceptions, the hard Covid-19 lockdowns have been chiefly in countries that are either autocratic, non-democracies or poor-quality democracies. Many autocratic governments used Covid-19 lockdowns to strengthen their powers, curtail opposition parties and leaders, and harass critical civil society organisations, activists and media.


Youth needed to democratise African societies

One of the reasons why democracy has not taken a stronger foothold in many parts of Africa is that many countries, beyond ritual elections, have not moved to democratise their societies, which includes fostering a democratic culture where widely shared democratic beliefs, values, and commitments in a country’ shape how individuals and the society act’.

It is crucial for the sustainability of democracy that young people be actively engaged in democratic processes, institutions, and rituals. Youth participation must go beyond only voting. The obvious is for young people to get involved in their immediate public spaces, community life and local level focusing on the issues – patriarchy, racism, gender-based violence, local safety, or the local environment – that impact them directly. Young people must push for a new democratic politics which rejects ethnic groups, religion, or region-based electoral mobilisation.

Although African youth have mobilised to push out autocratic leaders and regimes, they have not often prioritised democratising the entire society. Young people must fight to democratise every aspect of life, whether their intimate relations, religious, traditional, or political institutions are involved.

Competing governance systems to democracy, such as customary law, sharia law and military law, must either be abolished or democratised to align them with human rights, gender, social and generational equality. Young people should fight to democratise authoritarian aspects of African governance systems such as customary law, sharia law, traditions, and communal beliefs.

Many aspects of intimate and family relations conventions, traditions and religions are autocratic, undermining the dignity and human rights. Young people must challenge the undemocratic aspects of these. Young people involved in political parties must ensure these parties are internally democratic, elect honest leaders and focus on the broadest public interests rather than factional, ethnic, or regional interests.

All citizens, whatever their age, civil society and the media must hold elected leaders, governing parties, and legislatures more accountable. New technology, such as mobile phones, social media, and online forums, has given citizens new tools to fight for democracy by giving ordinary people a voice, increasing public participation, and providing platforms to hold governments and leaders accountable.

In countries formally claimed to be democracies, the youth must work with civil society organisations, opposition parties and activists to empower citizens, public dialogue spaces and institutions to be more resilient, to withstand attacks on democracy, democratic institutions, and the development of democratic cultures.



Africa’s youth must continue to mobilise against autocratic leaders and governments. However, crucially, African youth must also focus on democratising societies. The youth must take on competing for governance systems to democracy, such as customary law, sharia law and military law, campaigning to either abolish or democratise these to align them with human rights, gender, social and generational equality.

The youth must also battle appeals to ethnic mobilisation, regional-based mobilisation, and religious mobilisation – which have undermined democracy building across the continent. They must eschew populism –a major obstacle to democracy on the continent.

The answer for African countries is not less democracy but better-quality democracy, societies where all aspects of life are democratised. Democracy needs to be continuously defended, deepened, and made alive by every generation, especially the young, rather than be discarded.



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This is Prof William Gumede’s comments in his public discussion with Adv. Shamila Batohi at Stellenbosch University’s annual Centre for Student Leadership, Experiential Education & Citizenship’s Van Zyl Slabbert Honorary Lecture, which was delivered by Adv. Shamila Batohi.


William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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