On 16-17 August 2019, a convening was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, bringing together leading continental youth change makers who advocate and activate in creative and innovative ways for political change.
The gathering of about 30 people took place in an intimate space situated in Addis Ababa’s Revolution Square, overlooking the city’s landscape. The convening curated, consolidated and shared lessons and experiences of young people in Africa on initiatives, which if scaled, have the potential to strengthen and improve Africa’s democratic governance landscape and was funded by the Baywood Foundation.
Youth Activism and Popular Protest
The first session of the convening explored the value of activism and popular protests to action in bringing about effective change as well as lessons learnt from organized and unstructured citizen-led social and political movement building and advocacy campaigns.
Samson Itodo presented his reflections from the “Not Too Young To Run” campaign, which successfully pushed to reduce the age limit for running for elected office in Nigeria. He emphasized that power is not a thing, it is relationships and that “change is concrete, change is strategy.”
Salieu Tall continued the discussion regarding the importance of strategy when speaking about #GambiaHasDecided, a hashtag movement that galvanized Gambians to peacefully protest against President Yahya Jammeh who refused to leave power after being elected out of office. “It takes more than passion to succeed,” he said. “We needed capacity. We needed to organize. We needed to strategize. We planned everything and we worked towards impact.”
Tessa Dooms, an independent social analyst based in South Africa, interrogated the idea of youth, asking “what is meant by youth, what, if any is the inherent value of youth and how do we ensure that, if you are not a youth, you are not taking the space of youth?” Much of the discussion after the panel presentations revolved around what is needed to prepare youth for political participation. People spoke about the need for training and workshops around political participation and civic discourse.
Political Activism in the Digital Age
The second session explored digital terrains of struggle, cybersecurity, freedom of expression, internet shutdowns, and accountability.
Cheikh Fall spoke about his experience in creating SUNU2012 and later Africtivistes in Senegal to observe and monitor elections and to promote transparency, participatory democracy and accountability. “Back then they were unprepared,” he said. “These political actors have learned the trick now. That’s why similar initiatives are getting killed from their roots by political actors, using the same technology that we used in 2012.”
Hamzat Lawal told the story of how he and other young people created a digital campaign drawing attention to the effects of lead poisoning on children in Bagega, Nigeria in order to force government to act. After pressure, the president approved $5.3 million to combat the epidemic but nothing happened. Hamzat and his team realised that there is a difference between approval and dispersal and created Follow The Money to track public funds and ensure that when money is approved it gets dispersed.
Asha Abinallah of Jamii Forums spoke on behalf of Maxence Melo who won a court case after refusing to provide personal data on whistleblowers sharing information on Jamii Forums but had his passport taken away and has been designated a terrorist. Jamii Forums, the biggest online platform in Tanzania, is user generated with more than 90% provided by visitors, serves as a discussion forum as well as a whistleblowing website.
The discussions in this session focused on the negative aspects of technology, on how it can be used, not only for disinformation, but also to put people in harmful situations.
Achieving Peace through Empowering Women & Youth
The third session focused on peace processes, political transitions, addressing and emerging from conflict, countering corruption, and post-conflict reconstruction and development. There was special emphasis on the enhanced role, space and agency of women and the youth.
Francoise Kabral-Dereo of the Central African Republic spoke of the effect that conflict and corruption have on people’s lives and in particular on the lives of women. She noted that NGOs and UN Women are working to create opportunities for young people and young women in particular and prepare them to not only be active in political life, but to also take office.
Marot Toulounge spoke of the situation in South Sudan and the work of AYAN Africa, a refugee led organization for peace building and conflict resolution in the country. Marot said, “What we are calling for from every person is to learn from history, to understand where you come from and to ask, how can you be of service to each other. How can you learn to value your people and give yourself to your people?”
Moussa Kondo, Accountability Lab Mali’s Country Director, spoke about his organisation’s work and the belief is that if leaders, politicians, civil servants, and overall citizens work with integrity and honesty, the world would see real lasting social, economic and political change. He spoke to the importance of these qualities and questioned how, in the work of activism and advocacy, to create space for all people to be involved, including and especially those who have not been formally educated.
The discussions in this section went from talks about value systems and how to cultivate active and decent citizens to creating solidarity and thinking about alternative forms of leadership. The group spoke about creating safe spaces for critical and constructive dialogue in political circles, but also in the work done by activists, advocates and organizers.
Democracy in Africa
The first session of the second day explored gender relations, inclusion and participation, state-society relations, protest movements and militarization of politics and change.
Peter Fongeh of AYM in Cameroon spoke about sexual and reproductive health rights as a central need for citizens and the need to have comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education and services to curb unwanted pregnancies and increase the quality of life of young women throughout the continent.
Ateki Caxton spoke about the campaign in Cameroon to reduce the voting age from 20 to 18 and the act of voting, which he understood to be, “a way to assert your belonging to a community.” He stressed the importance to reframe the way we think about elections and, reflecting on the convening said, “The future carries many possibilities, I have that hope being here.”
Blen Sahilu centered her presentation around visions for the future. Reflecting on the change that has taken place in Ethiopia in the past year, she interrogated what a good, just society looks like. She spoke about strengthening what were then weakened organizations and creating change in the legal system, particularly the civil society law that severely diminished people’s ability to organize.
Reem Abbas described the history of the protest movements in Sudan that led to the ousting of President Bashir. The organization would be called Girifna, a youth-led resistance group, which, for years, worked underground on non-violent protests using graffiti, flyers (branded orange always), and public talks in open spaces. When speaking about the post Bashir environment, Reem said, “the country is so divided, so polarized. People are still protesting in the streets. The only thing that we can do is keep going; we can’t lose momentum. We’ve already lost so much.”
The discussion involved conversations that questioned democracy, what it means, what kind is needed in Africa, visions for the future, reflections on elections, women’s rights, ideas around inclusion, and historicizing protest and change.
Capturing Revolution through Art
The second session explored inspiring and documenting change through words, film and images. Sabri Benalycherif spoke about his work documenting the Ultras, football fans in Algeria who waged protests against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. He spoke of the commitment of the fans turned protesters, who left the stadiums empty to go to the streets to protest for their country. “I think it is our duty to give them a platform,” he said of his friends and photo subjects.
Farah Souames presented various examples of political satire in the form of cartoons in Algeria that are at once funny, highly political and speak directly to the protests. She spoke of the important space that cartoons can hold in society because of their graphic nature, which allows people who cannot read, the ability to engage with its content.
When the presentations were finished, Professor Martin Ike-Muonso, of the Baywood Foundation, led discussions of a way forward. “We want an African society that is good for us all, that creates a space for young people to play and innovate,” he said. “What are the action points that can get us there?” The participants offered a wealth of responses.