Despite challenges of unemployment, corruption, entrenched political leadership, and political violence, many African youth have found constructive avenues to promote peace, effective governance, and reform.
Africa remains the world’s youngest continent with a median age of 19.7 years. By 2050, one in three young people will live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Still, 80-90 percent of African workers are still engaged in the informal sector. Each year, 10-12 million African youth enter the labor market but only three million formal jobs are created annually. Meanwhile, nearly half of all African countries rank in the bottom quartile of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. These trends underscore mounting social pressures.
Faced with staggering youth unemployment and widespread dissatisfaction with the performances of their governments, young Africans are growing restless. This restlessness is manifested in the form of increasing tensions between an entrenched patronage-based, autocratic political leadership and an expanding, increasingly educated and connected cohort of youth demanding reform and greater political openness. In short, starkly different visions of Africa’s future are in motion.
Without a path for reform, youth will despair, and conditions will further deteriorate, possibly leading to more instability and conflict. Yet, most African youth have not chosen the path of violence. Many have been leading the record numbers of protests seen across Africa in recent years. This raises the question of how youth can meaningfully and constructively engage in their countries, pushing for reforms and improved security. Following are some of the existing initiatives instigated and led by young Africans that aim to channel the energy and passion of African youth toward positive impact.
Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding
Sixteen countries in Africa are currently engulfed in major armed conflicts while others face varying forms of violence and political instability that undermine the social fabric of African societies. These conflicts impede development and economic growth and place further strain on the ability of African youth to obtain jobs. Despite this array of challenges, African youth are engaged in a variety of activities aimed at resolving these conflicts and building greater social cohesion. These efforts have harnessed the talent and creativity of African youth and channeled them to rebuild social ties, encourage dialogue, and facilitate healing and reconciliation.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has faced decades of conflict and political instability, young people are at the forefront of efforts to mend social ties. The National Partnership of Children and Youth in Peacebuilding (NPCYP), a conglomerate of Congolese organizations based in Goma, is using arts to promote peace and coexistence. Located in the restive North Kivu Province, Goma has seen unrelenting levels of political violence since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Despite this inhospitable environment, NPCYP has been harnessing arts not only to build peace and encourage healing but also to empower young people who have endured the bitterness of conflict and its associated trauma. The initiative involves musicians, poets, and artists to creatively express themselves, providing the basis for discourse. These efforts have fostered mutual trust and an attitude of coexistence among young people from different backgrounds. It has also opened a space for greater dialogue about their role in consolidating peace.
In South Sudan, young people are using sports to build peace and mutual trust among warring tribes engaged in cattle rustling. For decades, South Sudan has been ravaged by political conflicts as well as intercommunal violence related to cattle rustling and abduction of women and children. Through the Wrestling for Peace Initiative, South Sudan Wrestling Entertainment— a local organization founded and led by young South Sudanese—is using the indigenous sport of wrestling to promote peaceful coexistence across South Sudan’s many tribes, especially in restive Jonglei, Lakes, Eastern and Central Equatoria States. A short documentary by VICE Sports shows the impact of this initiative in promoting peace at grassroots levels. The initiative mobilizes wrestlers from cattle camps and brings them to Juba for a month-long competition. Aside from the tournament itself, side-meetings are organized between youth leaders and chiefs from different communities. The spectators who come to watch the matches are charged ticket prices, which helps fund the initiative. Through engagement in this program, the youth from rival communities have forged long-lasting relationships that have contributed to conflict resolution and management at the local level.
In Nigeria, where ethnic and religious violence has embroiled parts of Africa’s most populous country, young people are working hard to promote peace through cultural exchanges and interfaith events. The Center for Equality and Equity, a Nigerian civil society organization, provides online courses for youth and activists to engage in interfaith dialogue aimed at reducing inter-religious violence. This initiative, launched in 2019, has expanded the scope of peacebuilding efforts. Organized virtually since COVID, the program targets youth between the ages of 18 and 29 and challenges them to understand cultures other than their own by learning about different languages and religions. The program aims to counter extremism that weaponizes religion as epitomized by Boko Haram, which has devasted parts of northeastern Nigeria. The objective is to encourage religious tolerance and counter ethnic polarization by providing mutual understanding.
Governance and Accountability
The inability of many African governments to perform and deliver services for their citizens has contributed significantly to the rising tensions between a reform-minded youth and an older generation of political actors who wield power through the politics of exclusion. This is reflected in the pattern of corruption that has plagued many African governments. Five out of the ten worst performers in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index hail from Africa.
In order to promote accountability and good governance, the Open Governance Institute, a Kenyan-based budget and policy research organization, is empowering youth, women, and civil society groups to directly participate at the local level in Kenya’s decentralized government. Open Governance Institute generates research and provides training opportunities for young people to contribute toward determining budget priorities and providing feedback in the use of resources toward stated objectives. This participation of youth has helped align resources to the priorities identified by citizens as well as empowered them to monitor the implementation of planned activities.
The Mandela Institute for Development Studies (MINDS), a continent-wide think-tank based in South Africa, is providing civic education focused on elections and governance to young people through regional education centers across Africa. The Youth Programme on Elections and Governance is one of the four core programs run by MINDS. It aims to help African youth understand the power of their numbers and how they can leverage this to bring about positive change. Specifically, the program enables youth to understand how some political leaders use the politics of exclusion to subvert democracy on the continent. MINDS also encourages greater youth participation in electoral processes and cultivates ethical and adaptive leadership qualities in the next generation of African leaders. The undermining of democratic governance and accountability has not only provoked violence in many African countries but it has thwarted the interests of a majority of African citizens, including youth.
The Network Movement for Justice and Development and the Kenema District Youth Coalition use participatory videos to encourage dialogue among the youth of Sierra Leone on issues of governance. Through an initiative known as “advocacy through participatory videos,” these two organizations teach youth how to record videos and use them to engage in constructive exchanges with local governmental authorities. The youth groups and communities then produce videos on issues of importance to them. As they develop their films, they build a consensus narrative on the challenges facing youth and use the power of story-telling to mobilize themselves and engage with local government officials. The initiative has resulted in greater dialogue between youth and local government representatives leading to improved governance outcomes.
Making Things Better for Youth and Their Communities
Rising inequity from poor governance and abuse of power is especially impactful on youth. Their challenge is to use the tension between the old guard and new for constructive instead of destructive engagement. This tension, thus, provides an opportunity for young people to step up and engage directly and positively.
Despite the enormous challenges the continent faces, young people across Africa are finding avenues to contribute constructively. Through these initiatives, young people are not only learning and increasing their capabilities, they are effectively making things better for themselves and their communities.
The creativity and diversity of initiatives young Africans have engaged in to promote peacebuilding and good governance demonstrates the capacity of youth for innovation and problem-solving. Despite the general exclusion of youth in decision-making, other opportunities exist for them to have their voices heard and for them to drive change. These opportunities can lead to meaningful engagement that contributes to improved governance and security even when a situation may appear hopeless.
- Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “The Battle for the Soul of Uganda,” Spotlight, December 8, 2020.
- Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “#EndSARS Demands Nigerian Police Reform,” *Spotlight, *November 10, 2020.
- Lise Grauenkaer and Thomas Tufte, “Youth-Led Communication for Social Change: Empowerment, Citizen Media, and Cultures of Governance in Northern Ghana,” Development in Practice, Vol. 28 (3), April 2018.
- Daniel Agbiboa. “Youth as Tactical Agents of Peacebuilding and Development in the Sahel,” Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, Vol. 10 (3), September 2015.
- William Avis, “Increasing Youth Participation in Accountability Mechanisms,” GSDRC Applied Knowledge Services, Helpdesk Research Report, August 2015.
- Monty Roodt and Sonwabo Stuurman, “Participation, Local Governance and Attitudes of Youth: A Grahamstown Case Study,” Perspectives in Education, Vol. 29 (1), March 2011.