African Urban Youth Challenge Views of Citizenship

Africa's Urban Youth Book Cover
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We are university professors at small, residential liberal arts institutions in the United States. Although we don’t want to overgeneralize, many of our students seem apathetic or cynical about civic agency. At the same time, they eagerly volunteer, establish clubs to address social issues, and help friends.

They rarely talk about citizenship, and if they do, citizenship is narrowly understood to be legal status, government-protected rights, and formal political participation to keep the government in check; it is not volunteering or helping. Might their African peers, who also face an uncertain political environment and disruptions from market economies, view citizenship similarly?

In 2018 we began a three-year investigation among urban youth in Ghana, Uganda, and Tanzania. Before we began, we read some descriptions of African youth that portrayed them to be a faceless majority (60 percent of the population is under twenty-five years old), an idealistic “next generation,” or a threatening mob. Some policymakers have said that the “youth bulge,” coupled with high levels of youth unemployment, threatens the region’s stability, particularly given Africa’s rapid urbanization and democratic backsliding.

These descriptions, though, did not accurately and fully describe the young people we had encountered in our previous experiences in Africa. Our book Africa’s Urban Youth: Claiming Citizenship, Challenging Marginalization explores these complexities, as we center youth voices to reveal how young people view good citizenship and the activities that such citizenship requires.

To gain youth’s perspectives, we conducted thirty-nine focus group discussions with youth between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five years old. (The age range indicates the extended “waithood” that many youth experience as they struggle for markers of adult status such as employment, marriage, and parenthood.) Most groups were segregated based on income level, church attendance, and gender. During discussions, participants freely and spontaneously built on one another’s ideas, debated, joked, contradicted one another, and recounted personal experiences.

We gained new insights not just on how they understood citizenship but also on why they took the positions they did. We also interviewed 33 youth activists in order to discover what drove their public engagement. Comparisons between Afrobarometer survey data and our respondents’ views helped us analyze gaps between macrolevel and microlevel patterns, and five case studies of youth-led organizations further uncovered citizenship patterns.

Unlike our American students, respondents embraced an “everyday citizenship,” a view that recognized a legal identity but prioritized citizenship as a process of negotiation and contestation over belonging within a community. As marginalized peoples lacking the status of adulthood, youth did not embrace only formal political processes. Rather, they demonstrated that informal actions at the local and national levels had political meaning. Everyday citizenship included how respondents negotiated their citizenship based on their gender identification, church attendance, income level, and country of nationality.

Although respondents often began by saying the good citizen, “obeys the law,” “pays taxes,” or “has a national ID card,” these legalistic definitions were not at the heart of most discussions. Beyond voting—which was often portrayed as a habit, a moment of sociality, or a normative good—acts of formal political participation that liberal democrats stress rarely came up. Instead, citizenship revolved around identities rooted in relationships. Youth explained that a good citizen loves and cares for her community and her neighbors by making everyday contributions. Respondents said citizenship manifests as cleaning up trash in the neighborhood, tutoring neighborhood children, taking a friend to the hospital (and paying the doctor’s bill), and cooking food for a family in need.

Citizenship is a lived experience embedded in obligations; these numerous, minute actions accumulate to define one’s very identity in the community and they constitute a foundation on which youth can contribute to building the nation. For the few youth who sought to hold the government to account by protesting or organizing advocacy campaigns, community-level issues or personal experiences motivated them.

Because citizenship revolved around everyday activities, youth frequently cited work as a crucial act of citizenship. Working hard, whether as an informal seller, a parent, or a student was a way youth claimed they could “build the nation.” But youth’s views of work and citizenship were more complicated than these phrases, which elders sometimes proclaimed in order to motivate or admonish youth. Work also enabled youth to meet citizen obligations, such as paying their children’s school fees or donating to funeral costs.

Without income, as one Ugandan said, one cannot be a citizen. Income levels also correlated with youth citizenship views: higher income youth, particularly in Ghana, stressed legal “do’s and don’ts” (e.g., don’t take drugs), work productivity, and self-reliance as key citizenship attributes, while lower income youth said citizenship was reinforced through collective activities that fostered reliance on others.

Youth respondents stretched everyday citizenship to include activities that often occur in the private realm, illustrating how gender and religious identities can color citizen identities. Some women described good citizenship as meeting their obligations as mothers, whereas several men defined citizenship as serving as a breadwinner or offering security to neighbors. But respondents also showed that everyday citizenship was not stagnant or glued to patriarchal expectations.

For some men, citizenship included caregiving; for some women, it translated into running for office or starting a business. And some church-attending youth viewed their religious community to be the primary arena in which they negotiated their citizen identities as believers.

Although everyday citizenship seemed disconnected from the descriptions of citizenship we heard among our students, there were some similarities. Like U.S. youth, several African respondents expressed disappointment, frustration, and anger with their country’s politicians, many of whom they believed were “too old” and “out of touch.” Corruption, repression, and a sense that youth were being left behind eroded some respondents’ citizen belonging.

Disillusionment led small groups to grow apathetic, to exit the civic arena, or to actively contest citizenship by excluding others along ethnic or religious lines. Yet, even some of those youth stressed everyday acts of citizenship that were creative and hopeful. These complex and at times, contradictory views of citizenship challenged the idea that youth are cynical and politically despondent. And they urge us as educators to question such complexities in citizenship among our own students.

Amy S. Patterson (aspatter@sewanee.edu) is the Carl Biehl Professor of International Affairs and Professor of Politics at the University of the South and author of Africa in Global Health Governance: Domestic Politics and International Structures (2018). 

Tracy Kuperus (tlk5@calvin.edu) is a Professor of Politics at Calvin University and has authored articles in journals like African Affairs, Journal of Modern African Studies, and African Studies Quarterly.

Megan Hershey (mhershey@whitworth.edu) is a Professor of Political Science at Whitworth University and author of Whose Agency: The Politics and Practice of Kenya’s HIV-Prevention NGOs (2019).

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