Editor's Note: This was a keynote address presented by Professor Attahiru M. Jega (OFR) at the 4th Annual Continental Forum of Election Management Bodies (EMBs) organized by the Political Affairs Department, African Union, held at the Park Inn, Radisson, Kigali, Rwanda, on the 9th-10th November 2017.

(Image Courtesy of the Department of Political Affairs at the African Union)

Participation in the political and electoral processes is a democratic right of all citizens guaranteed and protected by international conventions and declarations, as well as domestic laws. Regrettably, this right is often denied to constituencies most deserving by vested interests and dominant groups. The youth are the most significant and deserving of meaningful and purposeful participation in their country’s affairs, yet they are the most marginalized or excluded citizens from political and electoral participation especially on the African continent. While they are a demographic majority, paradoxically they are a political minority. Thus, their energy, vibrancy, enthusiasm, creativity, and innovativeness, which have been the hallmarks of progress and development in other climes, are misplaced and misdirected, rather than appropriately channeled to add value to African democratic development (Jega, 2017a).  This unwholesome situation has to change, because as Mr. Kofi Annan has aptly observed, “…A society that cuts itself off from its youth severs its lifeline; it is condemned to bleed to death” (UNDP 2013). Africa should not to ‘bleed’ to death. Enhancing youth participation in the electoral process in a constructive way would certainly offer a lifeline, as it would impact positively on democratic governance and socioeconomic development.

For elections to impact positively on governance and development, they have to have integrity. Youth constructive engagement with and participation in electoral processes would help address the integrity deficit, which currently overwhelms the conduct of elections in Africa and would pave the way for a sanitized leadership selection process that would catalyze good governance and overall desirable democratic development.

Youth Bulge
Africa is said to currently have the largest youth population in the world. Even more significantly, its working age population is expected to more than double between 2015 and 2050. In 2015, out of a total population of 1.2 billion, 541 million (45.1%) were under 18 years of age. An additional 458 million (38.2%) were said to be in the age category of 18 – 45. Young people, in the age category of 15-35, often defined as the youth, are said to constitute one third (1/3) of Africa’s population. This phenomenon increasingly referred to by scholars as the “youth bulge”, is potentially a demographic dividend, if carefully and purposefully harnessed. A young population is considered beneficial to countries, as it would seem to be correlated to economic development. However, given the current levels of youth unemployment and other acute youth-related challenges in Africa, the demographics may, unless care is taken, represent a ticking time bomb (Lin 2012). When/if, such a huge young population is characterized by unemployment or underemployment, inadequacy of educational opportunities and entrepreneurial skills and capabilities, afflicted by multifarious health challenges, in addition to marginalization, disenfranchisement and exclusion from the electoral and political processes, it becomes a potential source of socio-political and economic instability as well as acute crises and wide-ranging conflicts.

In Africa’s current circumstances, harnessing the potential contribution of young people to its democratic development, and enhancing their active participation in the political and electoral processes, are tasks that must be pursued with vigor and accomplished successfully. The challenges to accomplishing these, which are many, must be systematically identified, analyzed and appropriately addressed.  

Enhancing Youth Participation for Electoral Integrity
While there is a lot to be done to address the predicament posed by the youth bulge in Africa, among the priorities would be enhancing the participation of youth in the electoral processes, because this would expand the democratic space, nurture inclusivity, bring the boundless energy and creativity of the youth into the political and governance processes; and significantly, facilitate the entrenchment of a culture of electoral integrity, which is now most desirable for deepening democracy in Africa. African countries have slowly but steadily embraced democratization; in many countries, elections are now held periodically, regularly. However, the necessary and desirable task of deepening democracy has been hampered by the recurring deficit of electoral integrity.

In the early phase of transition to democracy in Africa, in the era of the so-called ‘Third Wave’ of democratization, which commenced in the 1990s, some theorists postulated that regular and periodic elections are sufficient indicators of democratization and maturity in democratic development (Lindberg 2006 and 2009). This assumption, however, is now increasingly contested, with mounting evidence being adduced, which prove that without electoral integrity, regular and periodic elections merely represent the formalistic trappings of democracy, while the substantive aspects (e.g. accountable leaders, good governance and economic development) are being systematically eroded and undermined (Norris 2014; Norris and others 2015; Jega 2017b).

Without electoral integrity, votes cast by the electorate would not count, mandates would be bought or stolen, the “elected” officials become irresponsible and unresponsive to the needs and aspirations of the electorate, and electoral outcomes not only face crisis of legitimacy, but the entire agenda and processes of democratization become unstable and conflict-ridden. Until and unless there is electoral integrity, for example in the manner in which an EMB discharges its roles impartially, competently and professionally; election procedures are transparent and accountable; citizens, as legally registered voters turnout to exercise free choice and their choices actually count; democratization would be devoid of its desired substantive attributes of popularly elected and accountable leaders, who deliver on their electoral promises and who nurture and entrench the quality of government, in terms of harnessing public resources to address the fundamental needs and aspirations of the citizens.

Indeed, youth can engage with the electoral processes in two fundamental ways. First, youth can partner with EMBs to discharge roles, which would improve the integrity of elections. Constructive, broad-based and active participation of the youth in the electoral processes would no doubt add value to the quest for electoral integrity and good democratic governance in Africa. Secondly, they can, better still, get involved formally by joining political parties and actively engaging as candidates for elective offices, not just merely as voters. 

However, significant questions arise: How can youth participation be enhanced and by whom? Who bears the main burden in enhancement of roles? How, specifically, can youth themselves, engage in the electoral processes? I try to briefly address these questions in what follows.

Bearing the burden of enhancing youth participation in electoral processes
Young people can by themselves or in partnerships, enhance their participation in the electoral processes. And they can participate in different ways and at different levels and gradations.  What is key is unity of purpose around a broad agenda for collective action. Although the youth are not a homogeneous social category, they can, working together, in youth-led groups, and or in partnership with other youth-oriented or youth-friendly CSOs, develop a common agenda for action to enhance their participation in the electoral processes. Youth cannot, and should not, expect their challenges to be addressed and battles to be waged by others for them, while they remain indifferent, with an attitude of “siddon look” (i.e. sit down and watch). They have to be in the forefront of advocacy and activism for the advancement of their collective interests. Youth have to struggle for their rights, of course with the support and encouragement of youth-friendly, youth-oriented and youth-focused individuals, groups and organizations.

In addition, broad based alliances and partnerships have to be forged amongst the range of stakeholders working on youth political empowerment, which would catalyze enhanced participation of the youth. The Key stakeholders would be supranational, international and continental actors; national governments; credible civil society organizations and credible youth groups. Through these partnerships at least three broad programs of action could be formulated and implemented as follows:

     1. Reforms of the legal framework to expand democratic space and scope for youth engagement and participation; youth-friendly legal framework that identifies and removes barriers to youth engagement and participation. Reforms of the legal framework would create and improve the enabling environment for youth engagement and participation by, for example, removing barriers and reducing age requirements for contesting elective offices.

    2. Mobilization, or ‘rebooting consciousness’ of youth for active participation; to address apathy and indifference, and to motivate and increase youth participation.

   3. Building and developing capacity and skills of youth for leadership and greater participation in the political and electoral processes.
     (To be continued in Part Two)