Why young people in East Africa should stop agonising and begin organising
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | This week I was in Arusha Tanzania to speak at a conference of youths from East Africa organised by YouLead. They came bustling with the energy and zest. I was impressed by their passion but concerned that energy without proper guidance can be destructive.
My message was simple: if someone wants to help you, they will often tend to tell you what you need to hear but which you may not want to hear – because truths often hurt. But when someone wants to help himself he tells you what you want to hear. Politicians are masters of this. They will tell youths that they are the leaders of tomorrow or even today if only they help themselves win elections and get into power. Be wary of their slogans.
The youths I met in Arusha felt excluded from power. But this was intriguing. Nearly all governments in East Africa come to power through elections. In nearly all our nations over 90% of the voting population are youths. Even those who come to power through armed insurrection need the young as fighters. Therefore youths can gain power directly or influence power indirectly to serve their agenda. Why then does such a powerful majority feel marginalised?
If youths want to lead, they do not need to ask to be given a leadership role in government as a favour from the elderly. They can just need to seize it. All they need is to recognise their potential and prove their mettle in political struggle. Youth should organise, not agonise. They should not blame the elderly for dominating politics; if that is happening it is because youths in East Africa want power to be given to them on a silver platter.
Africa has a rich history of young people taking the lead in consequential political struggles. Many of those who led Africa to independence were in their youths: Julius Nyerere in Tanzania was 39 when he became prime minister, Milton Obote in Uganda was 36, Patrice Lumumba in DRC 36, Kenneth Kaunda 39, etc. Many of their ministers were even younger. Salim Ahmed Salim of Tanzania was 22 when he became ambassador to Egypt and John Kakonge in Uganda became minister at 26.
The second crop of leaders in Africa were the men who came to power via military coups: Joseph Mobutu (28), Muammar Gaddafi (27), Capt Valentine Strasser of Sierra Leone (26), Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso (34), Murtala Mohamed in Nigeria, (37) Olusegun Obasanjo in Nigeria (39) Yokub Gowan in Nigeria (28), Jerry Rawlings in Ghana (30) and Samuel Doe in Liberia 28.
The third generation of leaders were armed revolutionaries: Yoweri Museveni in Uganda (41) Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia (37), Paul Kagame of Rwanda (36) and Joseph Kabila of DTC (28). In Uganda people like Mugisha Muntu became army commander at 28, Salim Saleh at 26, Kizza Besigye became minister at 28. So there is a time Museveni believed in young people. The point here is that these youths did not sit complaining that they had been excluded from power, pleading with their elders to be given power. They took the political initiative to seize it.
Also important to note is that youths should see leadership beyond political agitation but broadly: in school, in business, academia, civil society, religion, trade unions and mass media. Secondly youths should not see leadership as centralised but as diffuse. You don’t have to be president to lead. You can lead as a prefect in a school, a supervisor at a call centre, a captain of a football team.
Most critically, youths should not seek leadership for leadership’s sake. Do the youths understand the political economy of postcolonial Africa? Do they have an agenda for the liberation and transformation of Africa? In my many unhappy encounters with many of them on social media, I get the sense that very many of them believe in a nanny state: that their fortunes are dependent on getting alms from the state. I am inclined to advise youths using the words of John F Kennedy: ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.
Secondly, in these unhappy encounters with youths on social media I get the sense that many are angry at many things. Now being angry is not a bad thing but righteous anger is rarely a basis for good public policies. The fact that you feel aggrieved, however genuinely, does not mean you have the right response to the problem. Often what sounds appealing politically is dysfunctional as policy.
The problem we face is that most struggles in Africa are over who should grab power and inherit the neo-colonial state believing that getting into power is the solution. Africa has had over 300 changes of government without much change in governance or its outcomes. The state we have today was designed to serve foreign interests. There is little domestic input into the policy making process. What is the response of our youths to this reality?
The bigger problem is that Africa elites, and most especially our youths, fight over concepts borrowed from Europe and North America. But functional institutions evolve organically from within societies to reflect historical and cultural realities. Copying and pasting European institutions onto the African social structure will not work.
Secondly, the transformation of Africa does not only require youths getting into power. Rather it requires that those in power, regardless of their age, possess the right values, believe in the appropriate policies and make alliances with transformational social forces. Many youths are inclined to hate entrepreneurs yet only private capital can help our nations build the prosperity we seek and crave.
What is the guiding ideology of our youths who are seeking power? Does this ideology seek to liberate Africa from foreign interference and transform our nations from backward peasant economies to modern industrial societies? We can take a leaf from the youths excited by Bobi Wine in his struggle against Museveni. What is the ideology of People Power? What are the treasured values of those who support it? And which social forces are they allied to?
Youths in East Africa need to avoid the temptation to support individuals but to support values, policies and the right social alliances. For instance, youths do not need to wear opposition to a particular leader as an identity. If a leader acts against your values and preferred policies, oppose him and when he upholds them defend him.