Obstacles to, and Prospects for Youth Mobilization and Emancipation in Africa
As the group with least control over the means of production, and who, on account of their age have the largest stake in Africa’s future, it is unsurprising that Africa’s youth remain in the vanguard of opposition politics. Take for example Kenya’s political opposition, which draws support largely from the youth, or Cameroon, where youth have deployed social media to enhance their political expression in quite exceptional ways. In Uganda, too, the strength and enthusiasm of youth involved in politics is best exemplified by the recent election of Robert Kyagulanyi, a young musician better known by his stage name “Bobi Wine,” who won a parliamentary seat (by a wide margin) against the powerful interests of an entrenched military and elite-controlled political party. The Arab Spring, as well, was itself a revolution against an aging ruling elite, largely inspired by youth yearning for a future different from the one they had known so far under authoritarianism.
And yet, almost across the board, youth-led mobilization in Africa in recent years has either dissipated, as it did in Tunisia and Egypt, or it has degenerated into violent rebellion, as in it did in Burundi. The shortage of successful cases of youth resistance has its roots in the ways in which the apparatus of the colonial state was constructed, and how it was reproduced across post-colonial Africa. It also has to do with the absence of a broad alliance between the youth and other marginalized groups, as well as a waning Western liberal civil society.
First, just as in the colonial period, in Africa today, a small class of elites control the instruments of power, which are frequently used for coercion and violence. African governments have time and again employed military hardware, surveillance technology, and money to suppress dissenting political activists. And, just as in the colonial period, this small class of African elites maintains a strong alliance with Western governments. This alliance has consistently been the conduit through which these instruments of power are employed, and through which African youth are demobilized and disempowered. Political dynamics across much of Africa demonstrate that political power derives not from civil society, as classical social theory proclaims, but instead from elite monopoly over instruments of state violence, much of which is supplied and supported by Western governments.
Second, Africa’s youth have not yet successfully forged firm alliances with other victims of elite misrule and political repression, which, if formed, could aid in their mobilization efforts. For example, Africa’s small-scale farmers and urban working poor of all ages, genders, and ethnic identities, are victims of oppression and exploitation by World Bank and IMF neoliberal policies, which act in collusion with Africa’s political elites. These policies have unleashed debilitating market forces and weakened labor laws, both of which have deepened the exploitation and immiseration of rural small-scale farmers and urban working classes. If harnessed correctly, the mobilization of African youth, together with farmers and urban working class citizens, could have a profound impact on the African political landscape.
Third, from the mid-1980s through the late-2000s, Africa’s youth relied heavily upon the support of Western liberal civil society to expose the corruption and rights violations by the African political elite, and to keep those leaders accountable to a progressive international human rights agenda. This in part supplied the impetus for the waves of democratization that swept across much of Africa from the late 1980s through the 1990s. Unfortunately, waning liberal politics and the corresponding rise of white supremacists and nationalist groups in the West—and, simultaneously, the economic ascendance of China, a country that is less inclined toward promoting liberal politics in Africa—have weakened external support for young African political activists. Without strong outside support, African youth have found it increasingly difficult to confront regimes that hold unchecked power over the instruments of state violence.
Accordingly, Africa’s youth must overcome three major obstacles to achieving emancipation and full mobilization against the regimes that marginalize them. The first challenge is to dismantle the apparatus of oppression that was constructed as part of colonialism and later reproduced by repressive regimes after independence. The second is to forge a broad alliance with the wider section of marginalized people, including small-scale farmers and the urban working poor, who are also victims of elite misrule and political repression. The third is to reenergize a waning external support base that can hold African elites accountable for their actions. The first and second issues are within the means of Africa’s youth to solve. The third, however, will require an enlightened and willing Western civil society.
Despite these obstacles, increasing access to the Internet and various social media tools are providing profound opportunities for youth mobilization. In Uganda, for example, just as during the Arab Spring, youth are employing Facebook and WhatsApp to spread images that inspire and mobilize. Similarly, as smart phones become more accessible, social media is bridging the information gap between urban and rural spaces. It is also connecting the African youth and western civil society in ways that would never have been anticipated. How the youth continue to harness these connections, and escalate this moment, is going to define the global landscape of the next generation.