Photograph by Tony Carr

Africa is experiencing unprecedented population growth in terms of both scale and speed. The continent’s population is expected to double to 2.4 billion by 2050 partly because of significant declines in child mortality rates. Currently, two in three Africans are younger than 35 and youth – people between the ages of 15 and 35 – make up more than 35% of Africa’s total population. East Asian countries were able to capitalise on a large youth cohort – the so-called “demographic dividend” – to fuel an “economic miracle” during the 1990s.

The African Union (AU) aims to replicate East Asia’s success by 2063 via supportive policies, including the promotion of youth development and empowerment. The African Youth Charter identifies young people as “partners, assets and a prerequisite for sustainable development and for the peace and prosperity of Africa”. It also outlines their rights and responsibilities, including active citizenship. Regional and national youth empowerment policies have also been introduced.

In May 2016, the AU held a series of events to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the African Youth Charter and to draft activities for its 2017 theme: the “year of investment in youth to harness the African demographic dividend”. Yet findings from Afrobarometer, a non-partisan research network, shows a wide gap between these aspirations and the reality of youth political engagement.

In 2014 and 2015, Afrobarometer interviewed almost 54,000 citizens in 36 countries across the continent, 54% of whom were between the ages of 18 and 35. The results indicate that levels of political engagement and participation in public life are on the decline among young Africans.

Trends in youth political and civic engagement

Slightly more than half (53%) of African youth polled say they are “somewhat” interested in public affairs, while two-thirds (67%) say they discuss these issues “occasionally” or “frequently” with family and friends. However, young citizens report lower rates of political engagement than their elders across a variety of indicators, including voting. As shown in the following infographic, two-thirds (65%) of 18- to 35-year-old respondents who were old enough to vote in their respective countries’ last national election say they did so. That’s compared to 79% of citizens older than 35.

Less than 10% of young people polled said they participated in pre-electoral activities like campaign rallies. The same goes for civic activities such as attending community meetings, joining others to raise an issue, and contacting political or community leaders. A slightly higher number (11%) of those surveyed said they had participated in a demonstration or protest in the preceding year.

These findings are consistent with research on age differences in political participation in advanced democracies. However, the survey also indicates that youth engagement levels in Africa have declined over time despite the introduction of regional and national youth empowerment policies.

Interest in public affairs has declined substantially, from 81% in 2002/2003 to 58% in 2014/2015, in the 16 African countries tracked during this period. Participation rates also decreased on measures of civic engagement, which provide important avenues for representation between electoral cycles.

The finding of declining civic activism is worrying as engagement in the political process is an important avenue for citizen empowerment in democracies worldwide. Disengagement from the political process could therefore lead to the increased marginalisation of young Africans’ views. Having a voice in economic policies is particularly important for African youth because of the unemployment crisis affecting this age group.

About 10 million graduates enter the labour market in Africa each year, half of whom fail to find a job. At 30.5%, North Africa has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, while 11.6% of young people in sub-Saharan Africa are unemployed.

Gender differences in youth political engagement

In addition to its guidelines on youth empowerment in general, the African Youth Charter requires its signatories to eliminate laws and practices that are discriminatory toward girls and women. The objective here is to ensure equal access to all spheres of society, but young women consistently report lower levels of political engagement than their male peers. This is particularly so in West African and East African countries.

On average, disparities between young men and women’s engagement levels are largest for measures of “cognitive engagement” (interest and discussion levels) and smallest for voting (Table 1). Six in 10 male youth say they are “somewhat” or “very” interested in public affairs, compared to less than half (48%) of young women. Similarly, young men are significantly more likely to discuss politics at least “occasionally” than young women (74% vs. 61%). In contrast, the difference between male and female voting rates (66% vs. 64%) is not statistically significant.

These results suggest that there are persisting social barriers to women’s participation in the political sphere. It appears that many citizens, including many young women, continue to see politics as primarily a space for men yet women’s empowerment is particularly crucial to economic development because Africa’s youth bulge will lead to accelerated economic growth only in countries in which fertility rates are low enough to reduce the proportion of young dependent citizens (children). Better-educated, healthier and empowered women are more likely to have fewer children and to enter the labour market. Furthermore, greater female political representation is also likely to lead to more supportive policies for gender equality.

Although there are some notable women political leaders, among them Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, women only make up a minority of parliamentary representatives in sub-Saharan Africa (23%). Boosting women’s representation to meet the AU’s target of gender parity likely requires raising engagement among young women at lower levels of the political process. Greater civic education for all youth, and particularly young women, may be one strategy for moving toward the AU aspiration of an empowered young citizenry that acts as an agent for prosperity, peace, and development on the continent.

Rorisang Lekalake is a Project Leader for Afrobarometer at IJR

 

This article is adapted from an analysis piece originally published on The Conversation on 18 August 2016 (https://theconversation.com/apathy-among-young-people-stands-in-the-way-of-africas-demographic-dividend-64065).