However, Nigerian political strategist Adebola Williams, 33, who co-founded Enough is Enough, a coalition of youth advocacy groups seeking to push for more young Africans into politics, told Foreign Policy that “we can’t always expect change at our own terms.” Williams would know this, as a young African who is credited with having helped elect two presidents. He was the communications manager for Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
He cited the example of Obiageli Ezekwesili, who held two ministerial postings in the Nigerian government: minister of solid minerals and minister of education. A staunch advocate for government transparency, Ezekwesili quickly became a lone actor in a time when allowing public funds to be hemorrhaged recklessly was the norm. While Ezekwesili could easily have bowed to internal pressures, she opted for the harder road. She quickly sanitized the public procurement process to free it from corruption and passed a series of laws aimed at implementing of the first global transparency standards in the energy and natural resources sector, an effort that earned her the name “Madam Due Process.”
Lindiwe Mazibuko, who at 31 became the first black woman elected as opposition leader in the South African Parliament, was quickly identified as a rising star in the ranks of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. She successfully ran in the 2009 general elections and was subsequently appointed shadow deputy minister of communications before assuming the reins as opposition leader in Parliament. She later co-founded the Apolitical Academy with the aim of identifying and nurturing the next generation of ethical public leaders after she left Parliament.
“By investing in young ethical and transformational leaders, we hope to dispel the long-held myths about leadership that tell young people that they are the leaders of tomorrow, as opposed to them being the leaders the world needs today,” Mazibuko wrote in an email. “We know that, in Africa in particular, the only way for young people to participate is to get involved, and not wait for their leadership paths to be dictated by gatekeepers largely interested in maintaining the status quo,” she added.
In addition to dealing with corruption, some aspiring young politicians face physical threats. Whether it is a crackdown on student activism or imprisonment of artists, suppression of opposition voices across the continent is common. Young Africans know all too well the fate of those who have suffered defeat at the hands of autocratic leaders and their allies. Many well-intended activists were ultimately made fugitives in their own countries, raising the question of whether the cost of seeking public office is too great.
In more recent decades, the proliferation of small arms across the continent, leading to widespread violence during elections, has only reinforced the bleak outlook that young Africans have on government. Between 2011 and 2017, almost all of the 100 elections held in 44 African countries were plagued by some degree of prolonged violence. The reality is that a run for government can place young people in the crosshairs of violent nonstate actors, contributing to a life of heightening insecurity for them and their families.
The final barrier to youth involvement in politics is the fact that most African societies are still built on systems of seniority, which rarely allow for the transfer of any real power to young people.
“From when we are young, we are reminded to respect our elders,” said Chioma Agwuegbo, who helps lead the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign to reduce the age limit for running for elected office in Africa. The campaign, which was originally conceived to reduce the age limit for the Nigerian presidency from its original threshold of 40, has since expanded its focus to Senegal, Agwuegbo told Foreign Policy, in the hopes of spurring similar changes throughout a continent where age limits poses structural barriers for young people seeking office.
More often, there is a code of quiet deference: Young Africans pursuing careers in the public sector are expected to look the other way when encountering corruption in order to ensure their career longevity.
For those seeking change, a more principled approach may be taken as arrogance or disregard for cultural norms that value reverence for elders. Indeed, the cultural codes in many African countries that prize seniority don’t equip young people with the means to challenge these systems, or give the establishment any incentive to listen to young people’s concerns.
In the campaign’s first win, #NotTooYoungToRun’s age-limit bill was signed into law on March 31, 2018, by Nigeria’s then 75-year-old president, Muhammadu Buhari. That campaign demonstrates the power of youth coalitions in helping redesign political systems to operate more inclusively and allow for greater participation of an overwhelmingly young population.
Although their representation in the halls of government might suggest otherwise, young Africans are the bedrock of the continent’s future—both economically and politically. They must look beyond the exorbitant costs of running for public office, endemic corruption, and threats of violence and not be fooled by the false promise of becoming the next heropreneur; if they want to achieve political change, they will have to match their good intentions with a sound strategy—and ultimately enter the political arena.
Abdullahi Alim leads the World Economic Forum’s network of emerging young leaders, known as the Global Shapers, across Africa and the Middle East. Twitter: @abdullahialim