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Are young people the ‘underestimated’ missing piece to strengthening democracies?

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

“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“. - Kofi Anan


While the ‘post’ pandemic reality has revealed some of the very necessary cracks in our democracies it is also evident that these flaws within democratic systems existed prior to the global pandemic and now more than ever there is an urgent need to find new ways to promote sustainable and democratic institutions. Perhaps the most urgent and interesting reality that surfaced was the prioritization of youth and their ideas as well as their capacities and energy in finding solutions for all kinds of global challenges, most importantly what role they will continue to play in strengthening democracies. Moreso on the African continent where there has been an increase in autocratic tendencies and violation of human rights over the years and technology has been used as a mechanism to silence citizens and their freedoms of expression. Now more than ever the role that African youth can play in demanding change needs more attention. The exclusion of young people on the continent has had evident dire consequences – threatening political stability, economic development, and social cohesion. We as Africa’s young people want fresh ideas, creativity, and optimism to be utilized in driving change and progress on the continent, and Africa equally needs the creativity, innovation, and participation of us as the African youth at all levels


Many governments on the continent have introduced, (or attempted to), laws and regulations that target civil society and civil liberties. Cybersecurity laws that violate privacy and free expression, and laws that limit nongovernmental organizations have unfortunately been introduced in many countries. And while there has been an evident pattern in the decline in global freedom beyond the continent, African countries have also shown signs of improvement, resilience and innovation particularly in the digital space specifically by young people. Additionally, Africans express a clear preference for democracy in several Afrobarometer’s surveys.


Protests and social movements immediately come to mind when we think about the most effective ways in which democratic processes have been facilitated and youth are often at the center of those processes. Young people who have been desperate for reform are the continent’s biggest drivers of urgent change. In Nigeria, young activists led the campaign against the brutal practices of the government’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and we have seen the resilience of South African young people who protested against the inaccessibility of higher education during the #FeesMustFall protests. Due to the viral nature of both processes authorities were pressured to find a resolve whilst simultaneously keeping the civic space open and vibrant; a necessity for a resilient democracy but this is often underestimated. While digitalisation presents many opportunities to strengthen democracies, the vulnerable nature of it cannot be ignored as we have seen a trend on the continent where digital interference has threatened the expression and privacy rights as well as voters’ access to information usually resulting in governments responding to online activism by disrupting internet access and blocking online platforms, often during protests and elections. We have seen examples of this in Eswatini, Nigeria & Sudan.


However, the power of the ‘ripple effect’ in online spaces coupled with the resilience of young people themselves cannot be underestimated as these efforts have often resulted in further pushback which has introduced an interesting dynamic and tension for the authoritarian and at times patriarchal style of ‘democratic’ rule that is common on the continent. Young people have introduced new ways of participation and engagement online complimented by ‘offline’ efforts on the ground which present many opportunities of strengthening democracies on the continent moreso when the youth demographic forms a big chunk of the population - this should not be underestimated or undermined. Beyond that there is an energised chunk of the population that is invested in holding those in power accountable in the most innovative ways; this is a necessary part of insuring the legitimacy of democracies (beyond the ballot box and pledges). This is a healthy and important sign of an engaged society and presents an opportunity for non conventional methods of participation and centres of accountability, all while changing the status quo and increasing interest in political topics in general.


And while this may be an interesting space it unfortunately is often not enough to ensure the sustainability of democratic systems on the continent that need to move beyond the ballot box and 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. Additionally to this the visibility of young people in decision making processes is absolutely vital as it encourages governments to tap into the various skills, expertise and solutions young people offer. Thisis is a clever way to integrate a huge % of the continent’s population strategically inevitably resulting in strengthened and resilient democracies. Additionally to this young people work very cleverly and innovatively together with civil society organisations 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.


Although the impact of more youth-centered approaches to thriving democracies may not be immediately apparent it is no longer something that can be overlooked and any democracy promotion efforts (external or internal) will not be effective without bearing this in mind - a shift to more youth-centered interventions is crucial. The solution for African countries (and beyond) is an investment in better-quality democracies and for this democracy needs to be continuously defended, deepened, energized together with and for young people



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