Africa’s growing youth population will place young people at the forefront of the continent’s development. According to data from the United Nations, people under the age of 35 make up three-quarters of Africa’s population, and this number is predicted to continue to increase over the next decade.
Yet, despite their numbers, young people are often excluded from policy development, underrepresented in public office and remain on the periphery of political spaces. Recognizing these gaps and in an effort to highlight the importance of youth inclusion in decision-making and political processes, the African Union’s (AU) African Governance Architecture (AGA) convened three regional youth consultations with support from NDI under the theme: “Enhancing Young People’s Meaningful Participation in Electoral Processes in Africa.”
The three-day consultations were held in August and September in Arusha, Tanzania for Southern and East Africa; Abuja, Nigeria for Central and West Africa; and Tunis, Tunisia for North Africa. With more than 300 participants in attendance from 47 countries representing civil society, political parties, government and media, the consultations provided a collaborative space to reflect on the challenges, prospects and progress made to strengthen youth participation in political and electoral processes. The consultations also presented an opportunity for the AU, its member states and regional bodies, such as the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), East African Community (EAC), and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to inform participants on the normative frameworks and initiatives in place to ensure that young people are included throughout all stages of the electoral cycle, and not just on election day.
In the next two years, elections will be held in 31 African countries ranging from local elections in The Gambia and Mozambique to presidential elections in Algeria and South Africa. This influx of elections on the continent presents a wide range of opportunities for youth to participate in the electoral process. As a participant in Arusha noted, young people need to take advantage of their numbers to transform the democratization process and encourage more inclusive politics.
Through the consultations, the AU provided a platform for stakeholders to demonstrate, as well as strengthen, the ability of young people to engage in electoral cycles through political parties, electoral management bodies (EMBs), civil society organizations, or as candidates. Panelists during plenary sessions included representatives of regional economic communities, political parties, government and EMBs who outlined the steps they were taking to enhance youth representation within political parties, election observation watchdog groups and elected government bodies. COMESA, for example, is reviewing its guidelines to ensure that more youth are included in election observation missions.
As participants stated in each of the consultations, though, increasing youth representation in these spaces is only part of the solution. Young people also need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge and opportunities to actively contribute to bringing about change both independently and in partnership with electoral stakeholders.
This can be done through advocacy campaigns, as one participant, Ibrahim Faruk, highlighted when presenting on his work with the organization Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth, and Advancement (YIAGA) to reduce the age of political candidacy for public office in Nigeria through the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign.
It can involve empowering other youth to be change makers, as illustrated by Manal Harrouche when discussing her work with Afrika Youth Movement (AYM) in Algeria to ensure that young Africans have a seat at the table through AYM's hubs that provide spaces for youth to share ideas on how to build communities and change youth narratives.
Or, it can involve taking a leap of faith and running for office like participants Zyah Mejri, who at 19 years old ran for President in Tunisia and Suzanne Lengewa, who at 23 years old ran for Senator in Kenya.
Whether it be through running advocacy campaigns to address legal and administrative barriers that limit youth inclusion, empowering other young people to engage in electoral processes or contesting for office, young people require political competence, not just political access.
NDI's technical support to the youth consultations included the design and implementation of capacity building sessions that focused on helping participants identify entry points to participate in the electoral process and begin to think about how to address challenges that young people face when navigating political spaces. The sessions focused on youth as voter educators, electoral watchdogs, and members of political parties, and strategies for effective political communication.
The findings from Tanzania, Nigeria and Tunisia will feed into recommendations presented to senior level officials during the annual AU High Level Dialogue on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance scheduled to take place in South Africa this December. The discussions at the High Level Dialogue will shape the agenda and policy decisions made by African governments, organizations and institutions to enhance youth inclusion in political processes.
Discussions with young practitioners at each consultation made it apparent that a greater effort needs to be made by governments and regional and continental bodies to provide training for young people. This also means making sure continental and regional frameworks designed to increase youth inclusion are actually accessible to young people and that youth delegated spaces, like political party wings and councils, are spaces where young people can effect change. Particularly for young women, who face more barriers than their male counterparts do when engaging in political processes.
The information gathered during the youth consultations provides a framework for AGA and NDI's future programming to provide greater opportunities for young women and men from AU member states to meaningfully participate in elections taking place between 2018 and 2019.