Africa: Age of Agitation – African Politics and the Question of Youth


In January, millions of young Tunisians took to the streets to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the fall of the regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. In a country, where a fifth of the population lives below the poverty line and more than a third of youth are unemployed, young protesters are angry at their democratically elected government’s failure to deliver on the calls for ’employment, freedom, and dignity’ that began a decade ago. Back then, the Tunisian Revolution was heralded as a generationally defining ‘youth revolt’. The subsequent emergence of the Indignados protests in southern Europe, the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, and the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong, created the idea that these youth-led mobilizations were global in character.

The fact that these uprisings began in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, which shared with many other African states massive youth demographics, stagnating economies and entrenched authoritarian governments, suggested that they could be a portent of things to come across the continent. In the last decade, the frequency of mass demonstrations on the continent has increased more than seven-fold. In countries such as Sudan, Algeria, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, youth-led protests have helped to push unpopular governments out of office.

But political systems don’t break easily. The resurgence of authoritarian rule has often followed in the wake of agitation for change. In October last year, scores of young Nigerians, protesting against the brutal excesses of the notorious police unit, the Special Anti-Armed Robbery Squad (SARS), were killed at the hands of the Nigerian state. Two days later and a thousand miles East, in Sudan, protestors in Khartoum once again took to the streets to voice their frustration at the country’s dire economic circumstances. In Uganda last November, thousands of young protestors took part in demonstrations against the arrest of popular opposition leader, Bobi Wine, where at least 54 people were killed by police. In a country with one of the youngest populations in the world Wine called for a generational transfer of power challenging 76-year-old incumbent, Yoweri Museveni, in the disputed January 2021 presidential elections.

Much of the analysis of these events, thus far, has rightly highlighted African states’ demographic changes and the stifling realities of economic precarity that young people have faced for decades. Growing up in ‘waithood’, where the passages to adult life are often precarious, can make for a volatile politics. In response to the injustices and difficult life options created by authoritarian states and supply-side economic policymaking, young people have creatively reimagined visions of political change that involve powerful reassessments of the past. In so doing, they have responded to political crises of representation, by often acting as key drivers of societal change, utilizing new forms of cultural expression, reshaping languages and embracing new technologies. While some may be at the neoliberal vanguard of consumerism or adversely incorporated into political systems, others are at the forefront of fighting against austerity and for more democratic dispensations. This places youth agency at the core of these movements. For instance, by interrogating the historical roots of white supremacy, the Rhodes Must Fall movement critically challenged the Rainbow Nation narrative in South Africa and laid bare the enduring institutional legacies of European colonialism, instigating a broader call for the decolonization of education, public life, and knowledge production.

Beyond national protests and domestic politics, young activists across the continent are creating new solidarities between their struggles and uniting movements across countries and continents. Afrikki Mwinda is a pan-African network that brings together some of Africa’s leading youth social movements, including those in the diaspora. The network, whose members include Senegal’s Y’en a Marre, Burkina Faso’s Le Balai Citoyen, and Democratic Republic of Congo’s LUCHA, organized the 2nd edition of the Université Populaire de l’Engagement Citoyen (UPEC, People’s University for Citizens Engagement) in Dakar in December 2020. The event aimed to promote solidarity and stronger links between these African movements through the discussion of common agendas and the reinforcing of capabilities for collective action and citizenship engagement including strategies for resource mobilization. The impact of some of these African social movements, which have protested in the name of decolonization and pan-Africanism and against police brutality, have resonated far beyond the continent’s borders. In the case of Rhodes Must Fall, for instance, the movement has helped instigate a new politics of decolonization in Europe, North America and other regions.

New transnational connections and shared economic circumstances are not the only factors that unite this generation. More than ever before, young people encounter politics through screens. While digital spaces and social media have enhanced collective mobilization and stimulated new conversations and debate, they present potential dangers and opportunities for young people’s activism. The role that screens play in our lives has meant that the emotional weight of a vision of injustice cannot be tidied away by neat prose or official justification but has the power to stir action and stitch new political allegiances that can stretch beyond borders. Of course, these technologies come at a very literal cost – both in hardware and in airtime – and can serve to reinforce social divisions between the well off and the poor. In urging action, such digital mechanisms of mobilization can also bury debate and truth along with it. As such, these tools have often also been a handmaiden of a demagogic politics, utilized by increasingly repressive states that seek to police community imaginations and forms of dissent.

We live in an age of agitation which seems to be set along major global fault lines: the failures of neoliberal governance which is exacerbating socio-economic inequalities and leaving millions behind; the systemic racism in the global North that is alienating black and brown populations; the environmental and climate crisis that is triggering devastating natural disasters and jeopardizing the future of the younger generations; and the health emergencies, like the Covid-19 pandemic, that is bringing social and economic life to a halt and killing hundreds of thousands across the world. This is a world in flux that seems in transition between old forms of politics and governance and new ones that have yet to emerge.

The current conjuncture provokes important questions: What is distinctive about this historical moment and how can we understand the diverse trajectories and actions of young people and social movements in Africa? What underlying politics drive young people’s responses to the status quo and how are they mobilizing and thinking about political change? To what extent does examining these processes through the analytical lens of the younger generation allow us to better understand the political dynamics of contemporary social movements in Africa? Finally, what are the possibilities and limitations of these social movements and will their actions lead to systemic change? And If so, under what conditions?