By Matthew Johnson
Historically, young people’s voices have changed the face of the African continent. The political activism of figures such as Julius Nyeyere, Thomas Sankara, Sam Nujoma, Steve Biko and Patrice Lumumba all began when they were in their 20s. Nelson Mandela co-founded and was active in the African National Congress Youth League at the age of 26, before rising to the rank of its President at age 33.
These and many other African leaders were a key part of organic youth movements which led to independence and political change in the late 20th century. They did not wait for the government of the day to invite them into spaces where they could ‘participate’. Rather they demanded influence in areas that were closed off to them. They would not settle for anything less than a seat at the table, where none was prepared for them.
The landscape and narrative around young people in Africa have somewhat changed since then. The young people who fought for independence and were a part of these revolutionary struggles have become older. Their status in many cases has become almost ‘God-like’. Although their children and grandchildren are anxious to challenge inequalities and archaic ideas that are still hindering economic and social development, terms such as ‘Born-frees’ (a term used across Anglophone Southern Africa) are often used as code by older generations to indicate that ‘you are too young to know anything’.
As a consequence, continued corruption has been clouded by historical victories. While these past victories were fundamentally important, still more needs to be done to create positive futures for new generations. Beyond this, we also had the rise of the “youth pathology industry” where the narrative is largely shaped by a deficit-based approach that focuses on the weaknesses and risks of adolescence. This is in contrast to a focus on the assets and existing strengths that young Africans already have. However, the advent of digital media and technologies on the African continent is rising rapidly. For example, between January 2019 and January 2020, Africa added 57 million new mobile phone connections (up by 5.6%, the most in the world) and 23 million (+12%) new active social media users.
This rapid digital growth makes global knowledge, data and information more accessible. As a consequence, young people are increasingly realising the power they have at their fingertips and are becoming buoyed. For example, we saw last year that in Nigeria, the #EndSARS campaign called for President Muhammadu Buhari to address police brutality by scrapping the Special Armed Robbery (SARS) unit. Seeing the change that young people were making in Nigeria, Namibians came out in the streets against persistent gender-based violence through the #Shutitalldown movement. These issues are energised and given visibility online before being actualised into powerful movements offline on African streets. There are no leaders that have been ‘propped up’, but these young people have united behind a common cause and demand that change is witnessed before their eyes.
This is of course creating a nervousness for those in powerful positions who want to maintain the status quo. Digital blackouts have been an increasingly popular choice for leaders who want to suppress the criticisms of establishments. In 2007, Guinea’s former president Lansana Conté pioneered digital shutdowns in Africa when he mandated the blockage of the internet in response to growing protests over his leadership. Since this first digital blackout, the trend has been growing. In 2019 there were a reported 25 internet blackouts whereby 21 of these affected entire countries or most parts of the countries.
The digital sector, however, represents one of the most important economic growth opportunities on the continent. It is forecast that there will be one billion mobile internet subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa by 2024 with mobile operators investing $53 billion in associated infrastructure between now and 2025. Thus, blocking the internet will mean significantly blocking the economy. Such crackdowns are also unlikely to dilute the energy and appetite for change that these young people have. Organic, unmanufactured, youth driven actions for positive change are a part of Africa’s DNA. Despite many efforts to curtail these, it will inevitably become increasingly difficult to block young people from the spaces that they have a right to participate in.
Matthew Johnson is PhD researcher based at University of Sussex, Centre of International Education. His main interests are in African youth, political participation and urbanisation.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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