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Youth apathy sours African election fever

Chrispin Mwakideu | Andrew Wasike Nairobi
July 21, 2022

Despite young people comprising Africa's majority, their political participation is riddled with inconsistencies. Many young Kenyans won't vote this August, but it is likely to be very different next year in Nigeria.

Young people in Yola, Nigeria
Young Nigerians are more interested in politics than their Kenyan counterpartsImage: Kyodo News/IMAGO

On August 9, Kenyan voters will cast their ballots in what many are calling a two-horse race between the 77-year-old Raila Odinga and the 55-year-old William Samoei Ruto, the current deputy president.

Kenya's Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) has also cleared two other candidates in the hotly contested race to succeed President Uhuru Kenyatta.

According to IEBC Chairperson Wafula Chebukati, the general elections will likely witness a reduced participation of young people. "The number of youths aged 18 to 34 years and registered to vote in 2022 stands at 39.84%, which is a decline of 5.27% against what we had in 2017," he told reporters in the capital Nairobi as he unveiled an audit of the voters' register.

'First to complain'

Kenya is predominantly young, with youths making up about 80% of the population of 56 million. But many young people seem disinterested in the political and electoral process. Some say that this has something to do with insufficient civic education but not everyone agrees.

"We cannot say it is a lack of civic education, but a lack of solid interest in things that matter," Edwin Kegoli, a Kenyan political analyst, told DW.

"We don't want to participate in electoral matters fully, but we are the ones who will be on social media platforms complaining about bad governance and the deplorable state of the economy," he said. "So, we are the first to complain and the last to participate in the national discourse."

An armed policeman guards as people line up at a polling station before casting their vote in Nairobi
Analysts say that many young people would not spend one or two hours queueing to voteImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/S.Abdul Azim

Marginalized majority

Many young people, who also form the bulk of the unemployed, often grumble about being marginalized in terms of opportunities.

At least 1 million young Kenyans enter the labor market each year, but most struggle to get jobs, according to Kenya Private Sector Alliance.

Wilkister Aduma, a youth leader who runs an NGO that supports young people seeking elective seats, said that the "political space" had encouraged a climate of "apathy."

"This is why young people have found themselves on that side because what they're looking at is the opportunities. If they don't see the opportunities, they don't relate," Aduma told DW. 

The young political activist said that he believed the current economic hardships had also fueled voter apathy among youths.

Others say that young people have lost faith in the entire election process because of a lack of trust in politicians.

"It's very toxic and so acidic," said Peter Mwyne, campus director at Daystar University. "It's toxic because it is not based on mutual ground. It's a symbiotic relationship where you give me this, I give you that. It's a quid pro quo." He said that politicians were perceived to come to see youths only when it was convenient.

Nigerian presiential hopefuls Bola Tinubu and Atiku Abubakar
Young Nigerians are eager to select their next leader, who is most likely to be Bola Tinubu (L) or Atiku Abubakar (R)

Nigeria's youth fired up

The picture is very different in Nigeria. Africa's most populous nation is due to go to the polls to pick its next leader on February 25, 2023.

Unlike Kenyans, Nigerian youths seem eager to cast their ballots and to make a change.

"Nigeria is in a mess, everything is upside down, the economy is getting worse by the day," said Peace Joseph, a student in Lagos.

"Most people can't afford a three square meals a day. So, I am going to come out on that fateful day and vote," she vowed. She also said that others should not be "ignorant" by saying "our votes do not count."

Tolu Akinsulere, a young public relations officer, also said that he was looking forward to choosing his presidential candidate.

"As a [Nigerian] citizen, I would vote because I feel it is my right," he said. "I implore all youths, all Nigerians over 18, I implore all of them to come out and vote because if they do not vote, then it might even get worse."

"If they [youths] are tired of the way the country is, if they are tired of the high rate of insecurity, banditry, terrorism, Naira devaluation, and all other factors affecting us, they should come outside and vote," he insisted.

Political observers say this might have to do with the 2020 #EndSARS protests triggered by a video of a man purportedly being killed by the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

People protest at Lekki Toll plaza in Lagos, Nigeria, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.
The 2020 #EndsSARS protests galvanized Nigeria's youth to actively engage in political discourseImage: Sunday Alamba/AP/picture alliance

Inspiring youths to get active in politics

Young Nigerians mobilized tens of thousands of fellow youths and protested against police violence in the streets under the hashtag #EndSARS.

The demonstrations shook the nation for two weeks and forced the government to disband SARS and establish judicial panels of inquiry to look into numerous claims of police abuse.

According to Amnesty International, at least 12 people were killed after the army reportedly opened fire on demonstrators.

Since then, Nigerian youths have been engaging more actively in the country's political discourse, said Sam Olukoya, DW's correspondent in Lagos .

Political analyst Edwin Kegoli said that it was crucial for young people to develop an interest in the national discourse.

"If we get more young people into employment and empower them so that they are participating in programs that will bring growth and development from an economic perspective, then we'll find most of them beginning to develop that interest," he said.

He called on all political stakeholders to bring serious discourse to young people and tell them that the future belongs to them.

"If you fail to make a decision right now, maybe you are disinterested. You are only trading in your future," Kegoli said.

Sam Olukoya and George Okachi contributed to this article

Edited by: Keith Walker