Africa's Youth

A New Vanguard for Democracy?

Danielle Resnick

The victory of the opposition party, the Patriotic Front (PF), in Zambia’s presidential elections this month heralds a new era in that country’s democracy. The leader of the PF, Michael Sata, defeated the sitting president, Rupiah Banda, whose Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party has ruled the country since Zambia transitioned to multiparty democracy in 1991. Sata’s main constituency base has been the poor in Zambia’s major urban areas, many of whom are disappointed that the country’s economic growth has not resulted in more job opportunities and better service delivery. Given that this was Sata’s fourth run for the presidency, his victory is also in no small part due to the registration of one million new voters for the 2011 elections, many of whom are below the age of 25.

The impact of demography and education

The Zambian case is illustrative of the intersection of demographic and socioeconomic changes with democratic politics, and it holds important implications for the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.
In particular, the region’s rapid urbanization has resulted in both the emergence of a growing middle-class as well as a rise in the number of the urban poor. At the same time, Africa’s population is becoming increasingly younger as a consequence of high fertility rates and low life expectancy. The median age in Africa is 19 years-old compared with 27 in Latin America, 28 in Asia, and 40 in Western Europe, according to statistics from the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA). In some African countries, the median age is even lower (see figure). Aside from North Africa and the Middle East, youth unemployment is also higher in this region than anywhere else in the world.

Source: UN-DESA, World Population Aging, 2009.
Source: UN-DESA, World Population Aging, 2009.

Yet, is there anything different about today’s African youth compared with previous generations? One difference is that they are often more educated. This is due both to the emphasis of the Millennium Development Goals on schooling and the decision of many African governments to remove fees at least at the primary school level. As a result, the percent of primary school-age children actually enrolled in primary school has increased from 57 to 75 percent in the ten years between 1999 and 2009 while net enrollment in secondary school increased from 19 to 27 percent during the same period. The consequence has been a constituency that expects better opportunities but who are simultaneously not finding many job options outside of the low-wage informal sector.

A second difference is the availability of new media, including the internet and mobile phones, which provides a forum for the exchange of ideas and expectations among this more educated constituency. A third difference is that many of today’s youth were not participants in the pro-democracy movements that swept across the region in the early 1990s and therefore are less enamored with the political parties that overturned one-party rule during that period. This factor has certainly been at work in Zambia.

Africa’s youth bulge

So, what are the political implications of this growing demographic? Much research has been excessively negative about Africa’s youth bulge, predicting a propensity for violence. The past year provides some evidence of this trend. In July, the Young Democrats aligned to Malawi’s ruling party, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), used machetes to threaten Malawians protesting against the high cost of living and the lack of fuel in the country. In the aftermath of Ivory Coast’s disputed elections, Laurent Gbagbo’s Young Patriots were instrumental in perpetuating violence against the supporters of his opponent, Alassane Ouattara. In South Africa, the leader of the African National Congress Youth League, Julius Malema, recently has been prosecuted for hate speech for controversially promoting the liberation song, ‘Shoot the Boer’. Such examples, however, do not capture the participation of Africa’s youth in less extreme forms of political engagement, and they may obscure the role sometimes played by political elites in manipulating this constituency.

A new UNU-WIDER working paper explores the participation of Africa’s youth in more traditional forms of political engagement. The paper combines both survey-level data from the Afrobarometer survey project ( and country-level data from 19 of the region’s more democratic countries: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ghana, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. The preliminary findings suggest that Africa’s youth are, in many ways, very similar to their counterparts in other regions of the world. Specifically, they turn out to vote less and are more likely to express a lack of partisanship, or an affinity to opposition parties, than their older counterparts. They are not, however, more likely to engage in protest activities. Those among the youth who do engage in protests tend to be better educated, have greater access to media outlets, express dissatisfaction for the way their democracy functions, and tend to live in households with higher levels of socioeconomic deprivation. The paper therefore suggests that elections and political parties in their current form are not effective mechanisms for mobilization.

Such results are not entirely surprising given that the presidents of most African countries are older than 60 years of age, and they rarely incorporate the concerns of the youth into the political arena. At 74 years of age, Michael Sata bucked this trend during his 2011 campaign by strategically targeting the priorities of poor, urban youth, and this undoubtedly contributed to their turnout in his favor at the polls. Given that Sata spent the last decade railing against the MMD’s inability to provide jobs to the youth, there are now huge expectations for him to finally deliver.

About the author

Danielle Resnick is a Research Fellow at UNU-WIDER. Her research focuses on various domestic and external influences on democratization in Africa, including demographic change, socioeconomic cleavages, and foreign aid.

WIDER Angle newsletter
September 2011
ISSN 1238-9544