In their 2015 book, Africa uprising, already regarded as one of the most important studies on grassroots political movements in the continent, academics Zachariah Mamphilly and Adam Branch offer many insights on the political consequences of youth discontent. ‘A growing political society of frustrated youth – they write among other things – is a recipe for urban uprisings and other forms of possibly destructive political action, a reality not lost on African governments’. In fact, young people in Africa are also responding to the pressures that an increasingly precarious life puts on them by taking to the streets and directly challenging their governments.
This phenomenon has become more evident – and more widely covered by the international press – with the 2011 Arab (which actually also meant North African) uprisings, in which young people played a great role, but it was not unprecedented and, more importantly, wasn’t limited to the regions north of the Sahara. The same drivers of the so called Arab Spring also pushed many Black African youth to raise their voices and speak out. Unemployment, for instance, was instrumental in creating the momentum for experiences such as Y’en a marre in Senegal, which later took a tougher political stance criticizing the attempt of former president Abdoulaye Wade to perpetuate his family’s rule on the country, first by appointing his son Karim to a key position and then by seeking a controversial third mandate. In the runoff the movement threw its weight behind opposition candidate Macky Sall, who eventually defeated Wade. Despite this, Y’en a marre can’t be seen as a partisan initiative, precisely because the grievances of those who took part in the mobilisation went well beyond the political arena; the same can be said of many similar movements in other parts of Africa.
In Ethiopia, various times over the years (and even in the last few months) young people spearheaded protests in which criticism of the sitting authoritarian government mixed with other concrete issues, such as access to land and, once again, unemployment. Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen, which played a key role in the downfall of autocrat Blaise Compaoré in October 2014 and in foiling, almost one year later, a coup attempt led by General Gilbert Diendéré, took to the streets also in protest against a whole system which in fact gave almost no possibility of personal realization to those who weren’t linked to the regime. This is also the role that Filimbi and Lucha try to play in the Democratic Republic of Congo. What is explicitly questioned, in such cases is not the leader (or the ruling élite) for himself, but his capacity to deliver on young people’s needs and expectations.
This is even more clear in the case of post-apartheid South Africa, where political rights and freedom of the press are granted, and functioning democratic institutions are in place. Nevertheless, in 2015, university students started a series of widely covered protests, whose targets were at the same time symbolic and extremely concrete. The ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaign, started as an (eventually successful) attempt to remove a statue of the British colonial politician an businessman Cecil Rhodes from a university campus and turned into a nationwide mobilization against the symbols of colonialism and apartheid. In the process it also highlighted the economic inequality which is still deeply rooted in South African society. This same factor was among the causes of a second protest, dubbed #FeesMustFall, which, as the previous one, enjoyed a mass following on the social networks. It mainly aimed to stop fee increases, which would have penalized the poorest (mostly black) students, and to advocate for free tertiary education.
Although they have had sometimes a mixed – or still unverifiable – impact, these protests, generally speaking, have already proved to be effective, to a certain extent: they have led to the reversal of unpopular government decisions and sometimes to the fall of autocratic regimes, even if in this case, their influence on the new order was less important than might have been expected. More importantly, however, these movements have changed in a fundamental way young peoples’ minds, giving them a way to express discontent in a largely nonviolent way and an opportunity to be true agents of change even when not directly controlling the power levers. Nevertheless, these movements have not been able to achieve systemic change. Whether this will happen in the future it’s hard to tell, but the question is a fundamental one. If the current socio-political conditions in some of the countries where the protests have taken place won’t change, in fact, the youth will increasingly be tempted by two alternatives: joining more radical movements (including organizations such as Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State) or looking for a better life elsewhere, taking the path of migration. (D.M.)