Africa’s youth stand up to seasoned politicians

Bobi Wine’s political movement in Uganda shows how organised youth groups can challenge the status quo.

Africa’s youth are formalising their participation in politics – and Uganda’s 2021 presidential polls are a good backdrop against which to see how they’re doing. The entry into the race of reggae artist turned politician Bobi Wine’s People Power Movement (PPM) pits the nascent youth political movement against seasoned politicians including long-time President Yoweri Museveni and veteran opposition leader Kizza Besigye.

Museveni will be standing for his sixth presidential election since coming to power in 1986. Uganda’s constitution has been amended twice, in 2006 and 2018, to remove the term and age limits – potentially allowing Museveni to be president for life.

Wine (whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi) launched his political career as an independent candidate in 2017 as the parliamentary representative for Kyaddondo East. In July this year he announced he would run for president in 2021.

Wine insists that the PPM, which boasts a large youth membership and support base, is a revolutionary movement rather than a political party. His presidential campaign, led by 140 coordinators, controversially includes members of parliament from other opposition parties. These are Medard Ssegona from the Democratic Party, Asuman Basalirwa from the Justice Forum and Susan Amero from the National Resistance Movement.

Wine’s presidential campaign controversially includes MPs from other opposition parties in Uganda

Besigye, himself a four-time presidential aspirant, has acknowledged Wine’s candidacy and the two have met to discuss a shared political interest. Both contenders have been on the receiving end of the government’s attempts to control Uganda’s political space.

There are indications that the government is attempting to skew the electoral space in favour of Museveni. Following Wine’s announcements of his candidacy, the government tabled proposed amendments to the electoral laws. If passed, these changes would effectively curtail independent candidates’ ability to form alliances with other political parties and pressure groups.

Wine was even charged with treason in 2017 after Museveni’s motorcade was stoned by opposition supporters. Like Besigye, he has been arrested, tortured and charged with various crimes including treason and ‘annoying’ the president. The PPM is likely to suffer a fatal blow if Wine is deemed ineligible to stand in the 2021 presidential elections.

Low voter registration and even lower turnouts remain a challenge for youth participation in politics

The PPM continues the youth’s historical key role in instigating for political, social and economic reforms across Africa. Today, from Sudan to South Africa, the youth are influencing political processes through organised street protests and digital advocacy campaigns. In 2011 young rappers and journalists in Senegal created the Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) movement in response to ineffective governance and low voter turnout in elections, especially by the youth.

As is happening with the PPM, Y’en Marre members have been prosecuted several times, but the pressure from this group contributed towards President Macky Sall’s election victory and his replacement of Abdoulaye Wade. Y’en Marre continues to meet and advocate for the government to implement development-friendly reforms for young people.

Y’en a Marre is a good example of how youth-led social movements can successfully disrupt formal political structures. Across Africa, members of such movements are increasingly becoming visible in national political landscapes.

Many recently sworn-in young parliamentarians in South Africa feature prominent #FeesMustFall activists. The student movement, which began in 2015 around calls to reduce the cost of tertiary education, became a springboard to advocate for youth voices in the legislature.

Youth movements aren’t violent rebel movements and their existence should be encouraged

In Nigeria, the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth & Advancement called for the passing of the Not Too Young To Run bill. The campaign sought to reduce the age limit for running for elected office in Nigeria and globally. The passing of this bill enabled the entry of Nigeria’s youngest presidential candidate, 36-year-old Chike Ukaegbu.

Afrobarometer survey findings point to increasingly conventional youth political and civic engagement. Young people are creating spaces for themselves and their grievances in national politics to enforce the inclusion and participation they desperately need.

However low voter registration and even lower voter turnouts remain a challenge, despite the youth being a significant portion of the continent’s population. Afrobarometer notes that voter turnout among 18 to 35 year olds remains relatively lower than voters over 35. Nigeria’s 2019 election recorded the lowest voter turnout in two decades, despite the successes of the Not Too Young To Run campaign in getting young faces on the ballot.

For youth movements to create permanent spaces in political processes, they need to strategise and formalise their entry into longstanding establishments. Regardless of whether Wine manages to run for president, barriers to legitimising movements such as the PPM must be removed.

Youth movements aren’t violent rebel movements, and their existence should be encouraged. They represent marginalised voices and have the potential to influence democratic futures across Africa. The extent to which they can disrupt the prevailing political landscape depends on their ability to find innovative ways to enter politics. But above all else, it is youth voter mobilisation that will secure young people’s place at the table.

Africa’s leaders must also be willing to open up the political space – after all, young people’s growing preference for the ballot over the bullet bodes well for continental peace and stability.

Muneinazvo Kujeke, Junior Researcher and Chido Mutangadura, Consultant, Peace Operations and Peacebuilding, ISS Pretoria

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