Policy Positions #3: The Bolder, Younger Face of African Political Activism

The Bolder, Younger Face of African Political Activism

By 2050, 1 in 4 people will be African—the Continent’s Youth Believe Existing Social and Political Contracts Must be Remapped  

By Zachariah Mampilly

Policy Recommendations by Temi Ibirogba  



“I think of myself as an anarchist,” the activist told me as we strolled across a volcanic field that had been turned into a makeshift camp for displaced people. We had been chatting under a bright sky as Goma Actif, a youth ‘solidarity movement’ operating in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, worked to provide simple meals to over 1000 people, mostly women and children, who had been living in the camp for months.

(Source: Zachariah Mampilly)

Before I could ask him what he meant, a woman’s cries punctuated the sound of children playing on an improvised slide carved from the volcanic rock. We hurried our pace and shifted direction to see what was happening. As we approached, we could see a group of young activists and camp denizens attempting to calm the hysterical woman. Between sobs, she explained that the regional stabilization force had told her husband that it was safe to return to their home village. But on their way home, they were stopped at a checkpoint by rebels from the M-23 movement that operates in the borderlands between Rwanda, its patron, and the DRC. She claimed that the rebels had killed her husband and four children. Distraught and alone, she walked back to the camp, before collapsing under one of the few trees providing a modicum of shade from the unrelenting sun.

Moments earlier, I had witnessed unbridled joy as the young activists taught the children silly songs and dance moves to distract them as others cooked a simple meal of rice and beans. Now the mood was sullen and detached as the same activists sought to process the scene in front of them. 



Across Africa, youth activists have been working to develop a new social contract between citizens and governments that have long eschewed their most basic obligation to ensure the welfare of their populations. These young people no longer believe that existing modes of political change are adequate for the challenges they are confronting. Their loss of faith is important not only for its moral dimensions, but also because African youth are increasingly central to political and economic life on the continent, and indeed the world. Africa is both the youngest and fastest growing continent with an average age of around 20. Almost 60% of its population is under 25. By 2030, young Africans are expected to make up 42% of the world’s youth.

Since the end of the Cold War, young Africans have been told that the answer lies in supporting political parties and participating in irregular elections. Likewise they have been told to join foreign funded non-governmental organizations and international agencies to work toward incremental change through technocratic solutions concocted by westerners. More cynically, they have been encouraged to unleash their entrepreneurial energies and bring change through the market. Most recently, they have been promised that China will solve Africa’s problems through investments in African infrastructure, in exchange for Africa’s bountiful natural resources.

It’s fair to say nothing has worked. African youth are confronted with some of the most challenging conditions–spiraling inequality, climate change, renewed violence and political instability–all met with increasing global indifference as the United States and its allies concentrate on containing China and Russia in a new, more dangerous cold war.

In the face of the historic and unyielding burst in youth-led activism, I am often asked what do these new movements populated by young Africans across class, gender and ethnic divides want? Liberal westerners can’t fathom the increased cynicism towards NGOs and the international community, which despite decades of pushing hollow democracy promotion, have achieved little. Even on the left there is much handwringing that the forms of popular mobilization unfolding across Africa no longer adhere to traditional modes of activism.

The net effect has been to discount forms of African youth activism that are not easily comprehensible to outsiders. Social movements around the world are often blamed for lacking direction, for failing to articulate clear demands, for not working through existing channels, and for refusing to avoid violence. Little effort is expended by either African elites or the international community to grapple with the nature of the critique being mounted by young activists.



(Source: Zachariah Mampilly)

In a recent academic paper in the African Studies Review, I argue that instead of blaming African youth, we need to pay more attention to their message. Based on a study of youth activism in the DRC, I argue that African activists are engaged in a triple critique of their own governments, existing civil society organizations as well as the international community. Congolese activists insist that politicians no longer abdicate their duty to the population. They demand a new social contract, one in which the government no longer outsources its obligation to protect and provide to international agencies or non-profit organizations. And their critique extends to these actors as well.

Consider the words of some young activists I spoke with during my trip. “People take only the shadow or body of the state for their personal interests.” “We do not trust the political opposition.” “We don’t need to depend on NGOs because we have our own ideology.” As one Congolese activist concluded in an interview with Al Jazeera in 2021,“We only demand two things: for MONUSCO [the UN peacekeeping force] to leave and for the Congolese government to take its responsibility so that we can have peace.” Contrary to efforts to portray youth activists as naive or misinformed, these statements reveal a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the structural challenges young Africans are confronting. While they may not have all the answers yet, their words reveal a new vision for the continent that far supersedes the alternatives offered thus far.



(Source: Zachariah Mampilly)

What would it look like if African elites took these critiques seriously? It would entail a broad rethinking of Africa’s economic priorities to ensure young Africans have steady access to shelter, education, healthcare and meaningful job opportunities. Africa’s elderly leaders would have to make way for a new generation who reject the idea that the continent must rely on outsiders for salvation. Rather than propping up Africa’s out of touch political elites for their own interests, the international community should focus their interventions on supporting youths, including insisting on their democratic right to protest. Above all, it would require understanding youth activism as a sign of young Africans’ desire to improve their conditions rather than a threat to be neutralized as it is too often treated.

To return to the opening anecdote, was the activist an ‘anarchist’ as he claimed? Because of the woman’s tragic story, I never got to ask exactly what he meant. But I think I get it. On one level, he was referring to the decentralized, non-hierarchical model of citizen-led mutual aid Goma Actif is pioneering. In its disavowal of market-based solutions and its critique of government ineptitude and the empty moralizing of international humanitarianism, activists with Goma Actif are also pointing to ideas commonly associated with anarchism. But his next line was revealing. “I’m not replacing the state,” he told me. “That would be a mistake. As a citizen, I’m doing my part.”

Policy Recommendations

Africa Free Trade Zone: Established in 2018, the African Continental Free Trade Area was created to boost economic growth, reduce poverty and increase economic inclusion across the continent by increasing Africa’s exports by $560 billion, and boosting Africa’s income by $450 billion (by 2035). If young Africans are expected to make up 42% of the world’s youth by 2030, policymakers must consider youth data as they continue to implement the free trade zone.

Social Welfare Programs: Social welfare programs have been historically underfunded or non-existent in certain African nations. Cash assistance, unemployment insurance, housing subsidies and other social policies are essential to help combat the high levels of poverty, food insecurity, maternal and child mortality, conflict, climate change and other recurring issues that African nations face. These policies would especially help Africa’s rapidly growing youth population get a better start to life than previous generations.

Greater Investment in Mental Health Initiatives: Mental health is overlooked globally. In Africa, more than 116 million people were estimated to be living with mental health conditions before the pandemic even began, this has been further exacerbated by the isolation and death caused by COVID-19. There are currently less than two mental health workers for every 100,000 people in Africa with already scarce resources focused largely in urban areas, leaving those in rural areas with virtually nothing. Generational curses that affect the youth can only be addressed with greater attention from policymakers toward mental health.


Zachariah Mampilly is the Marxe Endowed Chair of International Affairs at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, CUNY and a member of the doctoral faculty in the Department of Political Science at the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the Co-Founder of the Program on African Social Research.    

This article is part of The Africa Center’s Policy Positions series, the recurring publications will offer thoughtful engagement with contemporary policy and governance issues related to the African continent. Policy Positions are submitted by members of The Africa Center’s community of thought leaders from across Africa and the African Diaspora. Follow @theafricacenter on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn to stay informed of new posts and to submit an idea for consideration.





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