African Youth in Focus: Realizing the African Union’s politics of November

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After two decades of an academic and policy focus on the demographic “challenges” prompted by a growing youth population in Africa, young people are still being presented as problematic and their grievances and active political participation are often met with repression. A recent initiative by the African Union seeks to renew the focus on youth development, and, ostensibly, realize the potential of the 900 million people under the age of 35 on the continent. Despite the widespread policy speak of inclusion and rights evident in both AU and other state and non-state interventions, the active political participation of African youth is often restricted through various forms of state securitization.

In a new Special Collection for the Journal of Eastern African Studies, titled ‘Youth, the Kenyan state and a politics of contestation’, we present diverse examples of youth political engagements. In so doing, we argue that the similar experiences of state surveillance and violence across this social category in Kenya warrant a comparative analyses of youth politics in its diverse embodiments. Such scholarly work is necessary, if we are to understand and take seriously the manifold and distinctive expressions of African youth’s political agency. The relentless construction of youth politics as problematic, and the continuous ahistorical homogenizing of youth’s experiences across the continent, legitimizes the securitization of this demographic with troubling effects. 

The theme of the African Union’s (AU) ‘African youth month’ in November 2020 is ‘Youth voices, actions, engagements: building a better Africa’. This initiative aims to recognize the diversity of youth, to strengthen governments’ relationships with them on the continent, and to amplify their voices. According to the AU, African governments must provide the space for youth to thrive and build their capacity.

However, the post-independence history of the continent is full of examples of contrary state actions; of youth struggling to find an outlet for their grievances and for their voices to be heard. More often than not, mass youth mobilization for political influence, participation and change is met with repression and control. The sinister state practices launched in response to the youth-led anti-Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) protests in Nigeria are just the latest example. Previous protests by Kenyan youth against police brutality and political impunity were equally met by state oppression and violence. In South Africa, the student protests for decolonized and quality education, which rested on a broader objective of societal transformation, were also met with similar expressions of force on the part of the post-apartheid South African state.

These three examples are articulations of a much broader and tenacious discourse of African youth as the continent’s most numerous and potentially dangerous demographic. Rather than being embraced for potentializing change, the political mobilizations of African youth are too often reduced to catalysts for violence and chaos. This relates to a second main argument of our Special Collection: namely, we contend that the characterization of youth as an inevitable security threat serves to distort or delegitimize the specific nature of youth grievances. As a result of this tendency, youth violence in Africa is often depicted “as fated and when it does occur, rarely as an articulation of justifiable discontent.”

In the social sciences and much policy work, the so-called youth bulge literature has played a central role in conjuring and sustaining this narrative. The ultimate by-product of this type of analysis produced by NGOs, academics and policy-makers alike has had a deleterious double effect: they position youth as a problematic category while simultaneously rejecting their political configurations. Deeply connected to an agenda of securitization, youth bulge narratives have played a key role in blinding us to these effects.

Recent instances where all-encompassing securitization discourses effectively gloss over and de-historicize specific and localized youth grievances are numerous. In such renderings, for example, the endSARSnow# campaigns in Nigeria, the SabaSaba marches in Kenya, or the FeesMustFall# protests in South Africa youth protests are not accurately represented as historically specific responses to explicit and justifiable grievances (like numerous other recent youth campaigns across the continent), but instead are problematically reduced to the actions of inherently anarchic youth.

The challenge for African governments and the AU lies, therefore, in their abilities to better understand and accommodate the multiplicity of youth political engagements in substantive ways, and to refrain from enacting youth-discriminatory securitized logics. In other words, as we argue in our Special Collection, there is a need to expand the ‘parameters of the political’ in the analysis of the political activities of African youth.  Such an approach recognizes that African youth, in attempting to avoid the censure of the infantilizing post-colonial state, have evacuated formal spaces of political action and have sought participation and expression in novel and, at times, unexpected informal spaces, be it on social media, in religious organizations or in hip hop subcultures. 

These spaces of youth political activity must be taken seriously, both as sites of research investigation and as spaces of legitimate political activity.  A reconceptualization of the youth politics in Africa is therefore vital if we are to, as the AU intends this November, recognize the diversity of this social category, to strengthen governments’ relationship with them, and to meaningfully amplify their voices.

Jacob Rasmussen is Associate Professor at International Development Studies, Roskilde University, Denmark.

Luke Melchiorre is Assistant Professor at Departamento de Ciencia Política, Universidad de los Andes, Bogotá, Colombia.

Wangui Kimari is Post Doctoral affiliate to Department of Geography, University of Manchester and Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (CHRIPS), Nairobi.

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