At the 41st Summit of SADC Heads of State and Government this week, Namibian President Hage Geingob – who is the Incoming Chair of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation made a remark regarding the nexus between the wellbeing of the youth and stability.
President Geingob said, “The establishment of institutions and mechanisms to empower, equip and upskill our youth cannot be over-emphasised, as our youth represent about 60 percent of our populations, and their inclusion in national development programmes is crucial for the stability of our region.”
It was an observation that had added significance in light of ongoing instability in the DRC, eSwatini and Mozambique; the recent riots in South Africa; and the electoral outcomes in Malawi last year and in Zambia this month.
In all the above cases, the concerns of young Africans are at the centre and manifesting themselves in epoch defining developments that will have a lasting bearing on our societies.
Urban development expert Felix Kariba (“The Burgeoning Africa Youth Population: Potential or Challenge?”) as quoted on the Cities Alliance website says, “The frustration and hopelessness of an unemployed young population can in its extreme have severe consequences, something not only witnesses in Africa but across the world. The World Bank estimates that 40 percent of people who join rebel movements are motivated by a lack of economic opportunity.”
It is a view point expounded on by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.
The organisation, in one of its research papers, notes that: “The African Union’s (AU) African Youth Charter claims that Africa’s youth is its biggest resource and Africa’s growing youth population offers enormous potential … (yet) More than 40 percent of young Africans consider their current living situation to be very bad or fairly bad. Lack of income is the most prevalent form of deprivation facing young Africans, with 37 percent of Afrobarometer respondents aged 18-35 having been without a cash income many times.
“According to World Bank data, less than one in five of young Sub-Saharan Africans (aged 15-24) have received wages in the past year (19.1 percent) and only 26.4 percent have their own account at a financial institution.”
This is the grim reality that young Africans are contending with on a daily – and increasing – basis. And the fallout will express itself in unequivocal changes in the political and social order.
This has been seen in the orderly but status quo defining ouster of the ruling parties in Malawi in 2020 and Zambia in 2021.
This has also been seen gravely in the fatalities seen in the chaos in eSwatini and South Africa this year.
And it has been seen more brutally in the easy recruitment of young people to participate in the terrorism bedevilling eastern DRC and northern Mozambique.
Readers may be aware of a psychosocial phenomenon known as the “Werther Effect”.
It is a concept derived from a novel by 18th century German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe titled “The Sorrows of Young Werther”.
The book is a collection of letters written by Werther, a highly sensitive young artist, to his friend Wilhelm. The gist of the letters is Werther’s unrequited love for a woman who gets married to someone else.
Young Werther comes to the unfortunate conclusion that either he, the woman he loves or her husband must die. He obviously cannot kill the woman, and he cannot bring himself to murder her husband, which means he must commit suicide, and so he shoots himself in the head.
Unfortunately, he can’t even get his suicide right and he spends half a day in pain as he waits to die. And even then, his sorrows follow him to the grave as neither the woman of his dreams, his family or the clergy attend his burial.
Researchers say the book sparked one of the first documented cases of what are called “copycat suicides”, which were dubbed the Werther Effect, as young men took their own lives over the many issues that plague youths.
So what has this to do with youths in Africa and the political and security developments were are witnessing?
Let us cast our eyes back to December 2010 to the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi.
Some people have credited the sorrows of young Bouazizi for triggering the revolt in Tunisia that led to the demise of a political regime that had lasted 26 whole years, in the process sparking what came to be called the Arab Spring.
In Algeria, protests against rising food prices and unemployment led to several people torching themselves a la Bouazizi.
On January 13, 2011, Mohsen Bouterfif, a 37-year-old father of two, is said to have burnt himself when the mayor of his home town refused to meet him and others regarding employment and housing requests.
One newspaper said the mayor had even taunted him before hand, saying if he was really desperate he should self-immolate like young Bouazizi had done.
Another Algerian man, Maamir Lotfi (36), burnt himself and died after a governor also refused grant him audience; as did 29-year-old Abdelhafid Boudechicha in another town. Similar incidences were recorded in Egypt.
That all happened at least ten years ago.
And it seems Africa’s political leaders have been slow to learn the lesson as seen by recent political upheavals in Tunisia, and closer to home in the DRC, eSwatini, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia.
Also, Africa’s political leaders have been sluggish in realising how easy it is for those with dangerously ulterior motives to latch onto the genuine grievances of Africa’s youths to sow the seeds of instability.
Why should Africa’s political leadership twiddle their thumbs and allow foreign interests to hijack the issues of our youth for their own purposes, when it would be simpler and more sensible to simply address the grievances?
Do we need to wait for acts of self-immolation to realise that young people are not the enemy, but rather corruption, selfishness, poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunities are our real adversaries?
Why wait for protests to erupt? Why wait for insurgencies to grow? Why not simply do what needs to be done?
By not listening to and acting on these sorrows of our young people, African governments are displaying their own signs of the Werther Effect, only that they are committing political suicide.