Young Africans could disrupt authoritarian states but they don’t – here’s why
Africa has 75, which will make up the African population. In 2080, the number of young Africans between 15 and 24 is expected to reach 500 million.
Although population dynamics differ across the continent, most sub-Saharan nations have a median age below 19. Niger has the youngest median age in the world at 14.5. South Africa, Seychelles, Tunisia, and Algeria all have median ages over 27.
These demographics can be a force for growth. The potential of Africa’s demographic Divide has been overshadowed due to concerns from governments and international donors regarding the relationship between high youth unemployment and political instability.
Many countries have large populations of young people and high rates of youth unemployment and underemployment, yet they remain peaceful. The dominant policy narrative, however, is that youth unemployment poses a threat to the stability of a country.
The role of youths in popular protests – like in Sudan in 2019 — has raised expectations for their role in battling autocratic governments.
As political scientists and social scientists, we are interested in the interaction between youths and autocratic governments, especially in Africa, where elected autocracies have taken hold.
These are dictatorships that have been elected to power by using authoritarian tactics. They include the manipulation of elections, repression against the opposition and independent media, as well as civil society.
The research we do focuses on interactions between youths and regimes in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. All of these are examples of electoral autocracies.
These regimes know that they have a large number of youths, and sometimes, these young people challenge them. Bobi Wine is a Ugandan popular musician who became a presidential candidate.
In the four countries that we studied, the armed groups who won the civil wars have remained in power ever since. The aging rebel government and the youth majority have developed a unique dynamic.
In an autocratic environment such as this one, it is easy to manipulate youth empowerment efforts in order to serve the regime’s interests. Some young people may play along and seize the opportunities provided by regime players. Some may resist. Others may take advantage of the opportunity, hoping that it will serve their interests and not those of the regime. This could still lead to patronage.
Read more: Abiy Ahmed gained power in Ethiopia with the help of young people – four years later, he’s silencing them
All of this matters because the future of democracy is at stake, and using state-led opportunities might contribute to authoritarian renewal.
In each country, our research teams examined a range of policies put in place by governments to “cater” to the youth. These included lending money to young entrepreneurs and setting up youth councils.
In all four countries that we studied, youth-targeted policies – which are primarily aimed at encouraging employment and political involvement – were part of the authoritarian rules. The employment and entrepreneurship programs were open to abuse by ruling party patronage and channeled to regime supporters.
Saving democracy is not possible.
In our research, we found that youth in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Uganda felt resentful about the fact that these opportunities were being given to supporters of regimes. The young people also complained about the lack of meaningful opportunities for them to express themselves. The institutions that were created to encourage youth participation had been co-opted by governments and were not independent.
Some young people have expressed their dissatisfaction through protests in support of democracy – such as in Mozambique in October 2023. Overall, Africa’s youth is not saving democracy.
They also do not counter the growing trend towards democratization in Africa, where incumbent governments are increasingly concentrating power in the hands of the executive. Our research in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Ethiopia has confirmed this.
Case studies in other countries
Zanu-PF has been in power in Zimbabwe since 1980 when the country gained independence. Many of the ruling party’s leaders, who are now older, use the fact that they were part of the liberation struggle in the 1970s as a way to maintain their power.
The “born-free” (those born post-independence) generation is accused of betraying liberation war by those who create narratives about the country’s liberation and patriotism. It delegitimizes any discontent that young people might feel. Zanu-PF uses its broader repertoire of strategies to maintain power.
Since 1992, Frelimo, the ruling party in Mozambique, has won all elections. The ruling party, Frelimo, has concentrated all power and resources in the hands of its political elite. Youth are still underrepresented and face serious obstacles in accessing resources. In 2017, this, along with other conflict dynamics, led to an insurgency that began in the northern region of Cabo Delgado. The group is led by Al-Shabaab or “machababo,” a radical religious group.
The youth-led protests that took place in Ethiopia in 2018 contributed to the fall of the ruling coalition, which had been in charge since 1991. In 2018, they also contributed to Abiy Ahmad’s rise to power.
Since, the mobilization of youth has been muted. Only loyalists have access to the job creation schemes. The militarisation of youth-dominated ethno movements has also occurred. It was evident, for example, in the war between the 2020-2022 and the Fano Amhara Group.
Uganda is a pioneer in institutionalizing youth involvement in decision-making. The government views youth participation in political structures as a way to control the population. This flawed system of representation, we found, provided young politicians with opportunities to mobilize both in favor of and against the current regime. For example, young candidates who are running for a youth quota seat in parliament can’t avoid the patronage of the ruling party.