Youth in Africa and the future of democracy

Published on 15 September 2023

Marjoke Oosterom

Power and Popular Politics Cluster Lead

Democracy around the world is under threat. Young people are often looked at as ‘the next generation’ who can rescue it, defying authoritarian regimes and forces on national and global levels. But as a highly diverse group, there are some young people that will, and are, supporting and reproducing authoritarian regimes.

This International Day of Democracy 2023, with the theme ‘Empowering the Next Generation’, we focus on how young people around the world, particularly in Africa, are interacting with democracy and autocratization.

Democracy under threat

Research shows that over 70 per cent of the global population currently live in some form of autocracy. Democratic backsliding is occurring in many countries, including some liberal democracies that have substantial economic, political and military influence. While motivations and strategies for backsliding can differ, a common phenomenon is that regimes and leaders undermine both government and non-government institutions and actors that should keep them in check. IDS colleagues have argued that this global trend of autocratization is strongly gendered; the backlash against women’s rights and achievements in gender equality is one of its main features.

While these trends are concerning, there are also hopeful signs of defiance and resistance to authoritarianism, though few countries have managed to reverse it. The debate on democratic backsliding and resistance has focused on government institutions, the diverse strategies deployed by authoritarian actors to stay in power, and how institutions and organised actors might resist (such as legal action by civil society or organised opposition like mass protests).

More needs to be done to understand the societal dynamics that reproduce authoritarianism. For instance, a recent study by Selvik and Dupuy suggests that repression of civil society and media can shape public opinion and increase the likelihood that citizens will support control over freedom of association and media freedom. If this is a potential consequence of living within a repressive regime, then it is of major importance to the present-day generation of youth who are more and more likely to grow up in these settings as democratic backsliding continues.

African youth and the disillusionment of democracy

International Day of Democracy 2023 takes place only days after the Open Society Foundations published concerning findings about young people’s attitudes towards democracy. Findings from their extensive research show that young people around the globe have far less faith in democracy than adults. Only 57 per cent of young people in the age group 18-35 feel that democracy is the preferred form of government. The report confirms findings from other research in Africa, where over 60 per cent of the population is under 25. African youth are less likely to vote, participate in community meetings, or contact political leaders compared to those over the age of 35, according to a 2021 report by Afrobarometer. This is a pattern observed elsewhere in the world, and certainly not helped by the fact that only 10 per cent of parliamentarians globally are younger than 35.

‘Just 57 per cent of 18-35 year-olds think democracy is preferable to any other form of government’

Quote from ‘Open Society Barometer: Can Democracy Deliver?’ 2023

Declining participation and trust in government institutions is bad for democracy. The debate on why Africa’s youth is not saving democracy while it is such a young continent points to the frustration of young people with their ageing leaders and the fact that democracy has simply not delivered, in particular with respect to generating decent employment.

It is not that young people do not care. Their abstinence from voting in African countries has been explained by Resnick and Casale by the perception that elections cannot remove unpopular leaders. Power hierarchies based on age and seniority make it hard for young people to engage in the formal political arena, not to mention the gender barriers and sometimes severe safety risks for young women to become politically active. Young people are highly vocal about democracy, in particular through alternative channels such as social media or informal forms of political participation such as through music and the arts. Some of the larger pro-democracy protests have witnessed significant youth participation, including the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. Yet rarely youth voice translates into real influence and thus far they have had limited to no success in countering authoritarianism, even after initial success as in Sudan in 2019.

How some African youth are renewing authoritarianism

Understanding that young people are diverse is key. Authoritarian regimes are aware of their large youth populations, especially in urban areas, where they might support protests and opposition. It could be seen that the menu of strategies for authoritarian renewal has evolved to include a dedicated youth section. Regimes have targeted young people with pre-emptive repression,  co-opting vocal youth leaders into government positions , and youth employment programmes have been used for ruling party patronage.

Different people make different choices. While many young people oppose authoritarianism, some actually do decide to join authoritarian ruling parties. This contributes to authoritarian renewal, as we argued in our case study on Zimbabwe as part of the project ‘Youth employment and political representation in Africa’. In a recent CMI Brief based on our case study, we discuss the motivations and actions of youth who are actively involved in the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

An infographic with a teal background, blue boxes with white text, with graphics of people protesting, collecting funds from government actors, and party activists in boxes below the text. The title of the infographic reads ‘Risk of Authoritarian Renewal: ZANU-PF Youth – Zimbabwe.’ From left to right, the boxes read ‘ZANU-PF youth are diverse, and not all are loyal.’ ‘ZANU-PF youth are highly critical of corruption in the party, rights violations, nepotism, the economy, and their limited influence in the party.’ ‘All ZANU-PF try to stay relevant to the party to access benefits.’ ‘Whether loyal or moderate, ZANU-PF youth help to reproduce authoritarian rule.’

Source: IDS. View in full screen.

To stand a chance to benefit, they have to ‘stay relevant’ to the party by supporting party activities and, in the case of highly educated individuals, making their professional skills available. In private, most were highly critical of their political leaders due to corruption, nepotism, rights violations, and their failure to deliver services and maintain a healthy economy. Some of those who build up a track record of active party engagement were elected in the recent elections. These ZANU-PF youth did not necessarily hold authoritarian values and the number of those who become active might be relatively small. Considered on an individual case-by-case basis, the practices of ‘staying relevant’ did not constitute significant political acts. Yet together, they contribute to the reproduction of ZANU-PF dominance and control.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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