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The Youth: The “Today” or “Tomorrow” of African Nations?

Holding on to power has been a great challenge by the leaders in most African countries. Many African countries struggled with transfers of power in their first half century after independence. Leaders who gained recognition during national movements for independence consolidated power and bound their own positions in office with their countries’ national identities. Leaders are increasingly securing longer terms and remaining in power by tweaking their countries’ constitutions, proposing amendments for approval by the legislature or judiciary, or in national referenda, that allow for additional terms in office. This practice grew more frequent after 2000, when many postcolonial leaders were nearing the ends of their constitutional term limits. For example, Guinean President Lansana Conte did so in 2001, followed by Gnassingbe Eyadema, president of Togo, in 2002. One year later, the Gabonese parliament voted to remove term limits from its constitution, allowing President Omar Bongo to run for a sixth term. Following these initial instances, attempts to extend terms became fairly regular occurrences, popping up every one to two years on the continent in countries including Angola, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Djibouti, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan, and Uganda.

For instance, ever since Nigeria gained its independence from Britain in 1960, there has been a kind of table tennis passage of power within the same circle of individuals, with the same system of administration repeated over and over and over again. We have witnessed a series of military administrations for many of our years of independence. This has left the spirit of the same military existing within our present democracy, with the same authoritarian practices of disregarding law and procedure in operation.

Angola’s dos Santos and former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, among others, claimed they were eligible to run for additional terms because the constitutions containing term limits were passed during their mandates; they argued the limits should only apply to future presidential terms. Zambian President Frederick Chiluba’s and Malawian President Bakili Muluzi’s proposals to raise presidential term limits in 2001 and 2003, respectively, were stopped after opposition and civil society groups formed alliances with lawmakers from the countries’ ruling parties. In 2006, Nigeria’s senate rejected an amendment put forth by President Olusegun Obasanjo that would have allowed him to serve a third term. In 2021, five sitting African heads of state had been in power for more than three decades each: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Equatorial Guinea, Paul Biya in Cameroon, Denis Sassou Nguesso in the Republic of Congo, Yoweri Museveni in Uganda, and Isaias Afwerki in Eritrea. More than half a dozen other African heads of state have been in power for at least ten years. The COVID-19 pandemic has also given African leaders greater leverage, using the health crisis as a pretext for postponing elections and stifling the opposition.

It is also good to point out that several longtime leaders have been deposed or otherwise left office in recent years. In 2012, large protests in Senegal led to an electoral defeat for Wade, who was running for a disputed third term. After weeks of demonstrations in 2014, Burkinabe citizens stopped Blaise Compaore from repealing the constitutional provision on term limits and forced his resignation. In 2017, Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos stepped down after thirty-eight years in office, and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was forced from office after thirty-seven years by a military coup. Two years later, Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir was ousted after three decades in power. In 2021, Chad’s Idriss Deby, who also ruled for thirty years, died following a battlefield clash with rebels.

The prevalence of these selfish leaders not just in Nigeria but in the whole of Africa makes the continent backward in terms of development. Poverty has spread its branches to corners, corruption is deeply rooted, the notions of peace are becoming tales, rights violations have become nothing, freedoms are being threatened, lives are wasted, families destroyed, people dance to the tune of illiteracy, and other problems too numerous to mention. All are the result of bad leadership. Unfortunately, youth, women and children who are hardly considered in decision-making process, have always been the expendable victims. While women and children are weak to resist and survive, youth are manipulated by selfish compatriots to accomplish their sordid deeds. Consequently, the name “youth” have become over the years antecedent to violence and immoral acts of every magnitude. With a large number of unemployed youths and multi-dimensional poverty that plagued the continent, youths who are supposed future leaders are now instrumental to vices that range from armed robbery, ritual killing, kidnapping, terrorism, election violence, and ballot box snatching amidst others.

While there was a time when these leaders were idolized as liberation heroes, the tide is turning. With the emergence of a well-informed and ambitious youth population, all countries on the continent will soon start seeing the full impact of this dynamic between a powerful, old elite and the next generation of aspiring leaders. The global youth movement is yet again gaining momentum all around the world. Young people challenging their governments in a part of the world where freedom of speech is not the norm. For instance, eight days after the 60th Independence celebration in Nigeria, a peaceful protest broke out nationwide tagged #EndSARS. This development occurred because the youth were not given listening ears by the government’s officials. #EndSARS is a decentralized social movement, and series of mass protests against police brutality in Nigeria. The slogan calls for the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notorious unit of the Nigerian police with a long record of abuse. This development ended with loss of life and wanton destruction of property.  It is not a case of young people being set against the older generation, it is about mutual needs, benefits and understanding between the two demographics. It is about major changes that need young leaders for them to materialize and it is about shaping the future, which cannot be done without the young generation. To put it simply, young people have the power to change the world and they will. They can be the driving force behind the development and peaceful existence of any nation or region.

Since time immemorial, youth have always been regarded as the leaders of tomorrow. This assertion was sung and backed by the leaders of yesterday and was made their popular catch-phrase. The question here is: When does this tomorrow start? Unfortunately, many of the leaders of yesterday are still romancing and clinging to the ladder of power. The leaders of yesterday who promised to hand over the baton of power to the youth are still dictating and navigating their lives even though many of them are elbow to palm distance to their graves.

Africa’s large youth population presents a great opportunity to influence the emergence of a new generation of leaders. According to UNESCO, “youthhood is a period of transition from the dependence of childhood to adulthood’s independence and awareness of interdependence as member of a community”. So it is a more fluid category than a fixed age-group. According to the Commonwealth Youth Council “a youth is anyone between 18 and 35 years of age”.  This age limitation can be less or higher in some other countries.

It is a well-known fact that the youth of any country is a great asset. They are the future and are representing it at every level. The role of the youth in nation-building is more important than one might think. In other words, the intelligence and work of the youth will take the country on the pathway of success. They are the building blocks of a country; bringing social reform and improving the condition of society. We cannot make do without the youth of a country. The nation requires their participation to achieve the goals and help in taking the country towards progress. Their participation in the development of the nation even makes them the leaders of ‘today’. The words of Pope Francis in the World Youth Day, 2019 is very relevant when he says: “The youth are not the “future”, no, they are “today” for tomorrow.” And in the World Youth Day of Nov 21, 2021, he urged them to be the “critical conscience of society.”

Every nation needs its youth. The reasons are that the youth possess boundless energy, enthusiasm and revolutionary thoughts among others and are, therefore, vibrant actors of social change. It is for these reasons that they are also branded as “partners of today.” This imposes a responsibility on essentially two parties – the youth who are the leaders of tomorrow and the adults who are the leaders of today. The leaders of today have a responsibility to properly equip the youth for leadership tomorrow. The youth in turn must be willing and ready intellectually, mentally and emotionally for the enormous responsibility that is to come.

References

By Youth, with Youth, for Youth, https://en.unesco.org, 18th November, 2021

John Campbell and Nolan Quinn, What is Happening to Democracy in Africa? www.cfr.org

The Commonwealth Plan of Action for Youth Empowerment, https://www.youthpolicy.org, 18th November, 2021