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date: 20 April 2024

Youth Politics in Africafree

Youth Politics in Africafree

  • Ransford Edward Van GyampoRansford Edward Van GyampoDepartment of Political Science, University of Ghana
  •  and Nana Akua AnyidohoNana Akua AnyidohoInstitute of Statistical, Social and Economic Research, University of Ghana


The youth in Africa have been an important political force and performed a wide range of roles in the political field as voters, activists, party members, members of parliament, ministers, party “foot soldiers,” and apparatchiks. Although political parties, governments, and other political leaders often exploit young people’s political activity, their participation in both local and national level politics has been significant. In the academic literature and policy documents, youth are portrayed, on the one hand, as “the hope for the future” and, on the other, as a disadvantaged and vulnerable group. However, the spread of social media has created an alternative political space for young people. Active participation of young people in politics through social media channels suggests that they do not lack interest in politics, but that the political systems in Africa marginalize and exclude them from political dialogue, participation, decision-making, and policy implementation. The solution to the problem of the exclusion of young people from mainstream politics would involve encouraging their participation in constitutional politics and their greater interest and involvement in alternative sites, goals, and forms of youth political activism in contemporary Africa.


  • Groups and Identities
  • Political Communication
  • Political Sociology
  • Political Values, Beliefs, and Ideologies
  • World Politics


There are more than a billion young people worldwide, about 80% of whom reside in developing countries, notably in African countries (African Union, 2017; Ebata et al., 2005). Africa is in the midst of what demographers call a youth-bulge, as over 60% of its population is youthful (Ebata et al., 2005). The population of Africa has grown from 944 million people in 2007 to 1.203 billion in 2016 (Africa Union, 2017). This can be explained partly by high fertility rates in many countries, which demographers attribute to early marriage, unmet need in family planning, and low or inconsistent contraceptive use (Ebata et al., 2005). In some countries, such as Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, and Niger, the average number of children per woman is above six (Africa Union, 2017). Even though countries like Zimbabwe, Kenya, Ghana, and Sudan seem to be transitioning toward lower fertility levels, the average number of children per woman is 4.3 (Africa Union, 2017). This demographic arrangement underscores the importance of youth politics on the continent.

African youth are a strong political force, which has been recently proved by the mass participation of youth in the Arab Spring and other movements of political protest, resistance, and revolt in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Niger, Togo, and South Africa, among other countries. However, young people’s political activity is not a novel phenomenon: young people played a political role in precolonial African societies and were the vanguard of independence movements and the anti-apartheid struggle in the 20th century. Importantly, young people’s political activity has often been both circumscribed and co-opted by other political actors. Political parties and governments in Africa often exclude young people from meaningful participation in governance systems (Asante, 2006) but recruit them to “fight dangerous political wars” (Ahwoi, 2008, p. 32), often as “foot-soldiers” of political parties (Bob-Milliar, 2014). In extreme cases, they are lured or conscripted into armed conflict and terrorism. As Cooper (2008, p. 68) observes:

What is striking about the role of young men in postwar African history is less their occupying a specific role than their availability: as supporters of political parties—starting with Nkrumah’s political movement in the Gold Coast; as toughs who serve political henchmen—from urban slumlords to warlords in Liberia or Sierra Leone.

However, it would be too simplistic to assume that young people do not have political agency. Even while political parties and other powerful actors employ young people’s energy and resources for their own ends, young people treat these activities as avenues to jobs, money, and social capital (Abbink, 2005; Dawson, 2014; Honwana, 2012; Peters, Richards, & Vlassenroot, 2003). As a result, youth politics has been described in terms of a “culture of political entrepreneurialism” (Jeffrey, 2010). Moreover, young people take initiative to influence and disrupt existing political structures or to seek political voice and economic power outside of these structures (Asante, 2012; Bob-Milliar, 2014). Vigh’s (2006) concept of “social navigation”—that is, young people’s attempts to construct meaningful lives within an unpredictable and constantly changing sociopolitical terrain—both contains the idea of young people’s purposeful actions toward desired ends and acknowledges the structures that constrain young people’s political participation.

Young people’s actions are important in shaping the continent’s political future, not least because they constitute about 75% of the continent’s labor force and voting population (Ahwoi, 2008; Diouf, 2003; Ebata et al., 2005; Gavin, 2007). There have been calls by several scholars to engage young people as partners in politics and in development (Delgado, 2002; Hein, 2000; O’Donoghue et al., 2002; Pancer, Rose-Krasnor, & Loiselle, 2002). In political discourses, there is also an increasing focus on young people, as documented in the African Union’s African Youth Charter (2010) and the UN systemwide Action Plan on Youth (2012).

This article reviews the nature of youth political engagement, highlighting the challenges that many young people confront when attempting to participate in politics at various levels. To enable this discussion, it is important to clearly conceptualize “youth.”1 In national and global policy documents, the term “youth” is commonly defined by chronological age, although the exact age range differs by organization. For the United Nations the ages 15 to 24 are often used, in contrast to the African Union’s (AU) African Youth Charter’s more extended age definition (Abbink, 2005, pp. 5–6). Many African countries subscribe to the AU’s broader age definition, which is an acknowledgment that the period of youth is extended in societies with significant social and economic barriers to young people’s transition into social adulthood. Indeed, Honwana (2012) argues that the transition into adulthood is delayed in contemporary African societies because of “endemic poverty and chronic unemployment resulting from failed neoliberal economic policies, bad governance, and political crises” and that, as a result, “youthhood” has become a period of “waithood” for many young people (Honwana, 2012, p. 21). These social and economic realities inform, and may even be a catalyst for, young people’s participation in politics (Ahwoi, 2008; Masquelier, 2013). Thus, young people’s participation in politics must be situated within the context of political systems, economic conditions, cultural repertories, and social dynamics of religion and ethnicity.

Gender relations have a particularly strong impact on the nature of youth politics. In patriarchal societies, young women’s participation in formal politics is hindered by the socialization of young people into gendered roles and by male dominance over resources and public spaces (Coffe & Bolzendahl, 2011). Indeed, historically these socio-cultural factors have combined with the history of the state as an institution indelibly marked by both patriarchy and militarism to exclude women from politics (Mama & Okazawa-Rey, 2008; Tsikata, 1989). However, as democratic spaces have opened up, women have increasingly participated in politics as candidates, voters, and civil society activists (Steady, 2006; Tripp, 2017; Tripp & Badri, 2017; Tsikata, 2009), although there are variations in levels of participation across African countries that can be attributed to gender differences in resources, political attitudes, and interests (Coffe & Bolzendahl, 2011). In the youth literature, young women’s participation has been obscured by the construction of “youth” as male (Burgess & Burton, 2010; George, 2014; Waller, 2006) and by the emphasis on sexuality rather than generation in gender research (Waller, 2006). As a consequence of this imbalance in the literature, the discussion of youth politics in this article is similarly skewed toward young men’s experiences, although an effort is made to provide an analysis of the gendered nature of youth politics.

Beyond gender, there are other markers of difference, such as age, education, income, and location, that affect the capacity and willingness of young people to engage in politics and the impact of their engagement. Broadly speaking, young people who have low incomes, lack decent or full employment, have little education, and live in rural areas tend to be more marginalized and excluded from formal political processes (Ebata et al., 2005; Peters & Vlassenroot, 2003). The forms of political activity also vary among youth. For instance, in her study of local politics in a South African township, Dawson (2014) shows that even while young residents were united in their material conditions and feelings of exclusion from politics, they took on differentiated roles as “leaders,” “brokers,” and “protesters,” shaped in part by their educational histories, their employment and living situations, and their motivations and preferred tactics.

In sum, the extent, intent, and forms of youth political participation is set within local histories, influenced by personal characteristics and choices, and linked to patriarchy, gender relations, ideologies of accumulation, and social mobility.

Youth in Africa: A Historical Overview

As Africa’s history is being written, the place of youth in the narrative has been limited to their contribution to liberation and nation-building (Boeck & Honwana, 2005; Diouf, 2003; Durham, 2000; Frederiksen & Munive, 2010). Burgess (2005) notes that, even where young people feature in stories of nation-states, the tendency has been to simply highlight their youthfulness without examining their significance.

The portrayal of young people in Africa’s political history is inconsistent and contradictory. In both academic literature and policy, the depiction of young people as agents of change and hope for the future of African countries are oddly juxtaposed with their portrayal as a disinterested, disenchanted, and disempowered social group (Anyidoho et al., 2012; Asante, 2012; Awoonor, 1990; Debrah, 2012; Griffin, 1997; Konteh, 2007). The literature is replete with negative representations of African youth, with the label “the lost generation” specifically applied to young people in countries that experienced protracted civil wars or the long struggle against apartheid and who are facing social and economic marginalization (Ebata et al., 2005; Ginwright & James, 2002; Richards, 1995). “Youth” has thus become synonymous with exclusion, disadvantage, and vulnerability (Abbink, 2005; Gore & Pratten, 2003) and, less sympathetically, with images of violent thugs and dangerous malcontents (Dawson, 2014; Gavin, 2007).

As a result of their material and social conditions, young people are often portrayed as politically indifferent and distrustful of the state’s disposition or capacity to meet their needs. Alternatively, youth may be presented as politically active but engaged outside the arena of constitutional politics or preoccupied with political agendas that are more global than national and requiring “smaller, intensive, personal actions” (Farthing, 2010, p. 189). A clear understanding of young people’s political activity would embrace both notions of youth engagement and disengagement and would also contend with the reality that, despite the ability to engage in alternative agendas, forms, and spaces of political involvement, many young Africans live lives and envision futures that involve both the state and their immediate communities (Straker, 2007). This recognition would suggest an investigation of young people’s understanding of politics, their motivations and intentions in their political engagements, and the many sites and forms of their political activism (Farthing, 2010).

This section on the history of youth politics in Africa borrows from the work of Gyampo and Obeng-Odoom (2012), which presents a heuristic categorization of youth politics into four phases: the precolonial phase around the 1620s, prior to colonial rule, in which youth had clear roles within age-based societies; the colonial period focusing on Africans’ encounter with and resistance to colonialism, which saw the foundation of some of the most voluntary trans-ethnic youth groups; the period of political independence in the 1950s and 1960s that saw growth in government-funded or government-controlled youth organizations; and the period of political liberalization during which there has been further growth and “normalization” of the role of youth in politics.

Youth Politics in Precolonial Times

In precolonial times, African political systems were generally organized around seniority, with authority vested in family or clan heads and chiefs who governed with the assistance of councils of elders. In these gerontocratic societies, youth accepted subordinate social, political, and economic roles within institutions based on respect for the rule, views, and counsel of the chief and the elderly (Austin, 1964; Awoonor, 1990). In particular, young people were employed as a labor force on family farms and in other economic enterprises (Amanor, 2001), and, through age associations, male youth were responsible for defense and public services within traditional communities (Manoukian, 1971). While young people were not generally involved in decision-making in traditional societies, they had a sense of ownership of such decisions and participated in their successful implementation (Chazan, 1974). Another aspect of young people’s political importance in the period prior to the encounter with colonialism was their right to offer public criticisms of traditional authorities who violated the public trust (Busia, 1968; Chazan, 1983; Christensen, 1954).

Youth Politics During Colonial Rule

During the encounter with colonialism, the development of interethnic organizations, such as the Girls Guides, the Boy Scouts, and the Red Cross Society, was linked to the influence of Christianization and formal education. The initial steps toward institutionalization of these youth groups were tentative. The Guides, Scouts, and other groups did not have meaningful social and political roles during their early years (Chazan, 1974). The Second World War, however, gave an impetus to the expansion of youth organizations, which was linked to the process of decolonization (Boateng, 1967). Among the new youth organizations formed were the Young Men’s Christian Association, the Young Women’s Christian Association, and the Catholic Youth Organization (Kyei-Baffour, 1958).

Colonialism exacerbated generational tensions that had been largely contained in precolonial societies. The British system of indirect rule practiced in West and East Africa were using traditional authority structures as a conduit and enforcer of colonial power at the same time as education, wage labor, and urbanization were loosening the influence of traditional social systems on young people’s identities, cultures, and prospects (Boahen, 1979; Burgess & Burton, 2010). In particular, young people’s migration into urban spaces, their perceived alienation from traditional mores, and their immersion in youth cultures were a source of aggravation for both colonial and traditional authorities (Burgess & Burton, 2010; George, 2014).

The development of trade and education exposed young people to the doctrines of personal reward and private property and the right of bequest (Austin, 1964; Kimble, 1963). In British West Africa, the monetization of the economy and further development of trade and enterprise produced a cadre of youth who were financially independent enough to actively resist both traditional leaders and colonial officials (Awoonor, 1990; Burgess & Burton, 2010), who, in turn, attempted to constrain the young people. While mobility and migration regulations targeted mostly young men, Allman (1996) provides an instructive analysis of the collusion of traditional chiefs and colonial officials to manufacture a moral crisis around the increasing numbers of unmarried young women, which camouflaged anxieties over women’s increasing economic and social independence.

Youth Politics at Independence

African youth were both the intellectual and ground forces in the nationalist and pan-African movements. As early as 1929 in the Gold Coast colony, elite natives, many of whom had studied law in Britain and had been active members of the West African Students Union, advocated the formation of a “national assembly of youth to study the problems facing the colony and to think and act together as one people” (Boahen, 1979, p. 138). The Fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945 in Manchester, considered to be one of the most important for the liberation movement, was attended by many youth participants who would go on to lead independence movements in various African countries (Ojok & Acol, 2017).

Younger nationalists such as Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe, Guinea’s Sékou Touré, Mali’s Modibo Keita, and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah organized youth to resist the colonial rule, often preferring strategies different from those of older nationalists (Awoonor, 1990; Chazan, 1974). Nkrumah, for instance, broke rank with the United Gold Coast Convention on the questions of how fast and through what avenues independence should be achieved. He formed the Convention Peoples’ Party (CCP) in 1949, aligning the party with the Committee on Youth Organizations (CYOs), whose members were composed mainly of young people, among them school leavers, junior civil servants, petty traders, and young shop assistants (Chazan, 1974). Similarly, the Democratic Party of Guinea under the leadership of Sékou Touré was mobilized around youth who were the main agents of Guinea’s fight for independence (Awoonor, 1990).

By 1965, 37 African states had won independence (Wallerstein, 1966). In sub-Saharan Africa, the Gold Coast, now Ghana, was the first to gain independence in March 1957. Upon attainment of independence, youth groups pledged their allegiance to the regimes that led them in the fight against the colonial rule. The politics of new nation-states were underpinned by old patriarchal and gerontocratic ideologies that evoked ideals of family and community in service of the grand project of nation-building. In effect,

[t]he politics of generation after independence were at the same time inclusive and exclusive; the state recruited, celebrated and fore-grounded the vitality of the youth on the public stage. And yet the state also excluded images of the youth that appeared to conflict with the nationalist imperative of building the nation and its selective invocation of African traditions.

(Burgess & Burton, 2010, p. 12)

In Ghana, Nkrumah co-opted traditional youth associations into the CPP, while other new youth groups such as the Young Pioneer Movement were formed to defend his government (Awoonor, 1990). The dynamics of youth groups organizing to defend the administration of new regimes occurred in other countries, including Ivory Coast, where President Felix Houphouet-Boigny established a party militia of both young people and veterans (Chazan, 1974; see also Wallerstein, 1966). The centralization of youth organizations by governments after independence provoked resistance from youth groups that operated outside the control of the parties in power. For instance, the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) came into conflict with the CPP government’s agenda to co-opt youth organizations (Finlay, Koplin, & Ballard, 1968). Similar motivations informed attempts of student groups between 1962 and 1964 to overthrow Houphouet-Boigny with the support of key political party officials (Finlay et al., 1968).

Youth Politics in the Era of Political Liberalization

The period of political liberalization spans the exit of many of the independent fighters up to the 1990s when many African countries underwent the “third wave” of democratization. Youth organizations identified with the regimes of independence fighters were disbanded or repressed (Shillington, 1992). This paved the way for the resuscitation and reorganization of the voluntary youth groups that had been undermined by post-independence governments (Chazan, 1974). Student movements became more vigorous and their activities more important as supporters of the new regimes and implementers of their policies. In Ghana and Ivory Coast, for instance, many young people were recruited as volunteers in the agricultural sector to help achieve food sufficiency as a way of showing support to the new regimes (Gyimah-Boadi, 1989; Shillington, 1992).

Soon, the youth and, in particular, student movements became critical of the new regimes for not effectively addressing the challenges confronting the ordinary people. From the middle of the 1970s in Ghana, for instance, NUGS organized a series of protests against police and military brutalities, high food prices, and mismanagement of the economy. These protests resulted in frequent closure of universities as well as arrests of student leaders and youth activists. These actions of young people contributed to the demise of many regimes and the promulgation of new constitutions in the 1990s (Gyimah-Boadi, 1990; Shillington, 1992). In Nigeria as in Ghana, it was the youth, civil society, and student groups that pushed for constitutional reforms and the drafting of new constitutions to pave the way for further democratization (Chazan, 1974).

The promulgation of new constitutions in the 1990s marked the end of an era of military dictatorship in many African countries. However, whereas some African countries had strong and well-organized parties, others created “election machines” that functioned only to hold elections (Asante, 2006). Political parties extended their reach to youth beyond party formal structures. They formed youth clubs in urban centers to strengthen their support base among young people in such communities and undertook outreach to tertiary institutions by forming student wings that allowed parties to have a presence in the student community, canvass support, and propagate their ideology (Asante, 2006; Gyampo, 2015).

Youth in Politics in Contemporary Africa

Youth politics in Africa today shows some continuity with a history of co-optation of youth by formal political authorities (be it chieftaincy, the state, or political parties) but also evidences a disengagement of young people from formal politics that contrasts with their enthusiasm for independence.

While the continent has undergone significant political and social change, patriarchy and gerontocracy still permeate political institutions in ways that disadvantage young people. Relatively lacking in social and political capital, youth find themselves on the periphery of power even while acting as “voting machines” and party apparatchiks (Bob-Milliar, 2014; Gyampo, 2011; Honwana, 2012). Some youths, disillusioned with formal politics, may disengage from the political system altogether (Boeck & Honwana, 2005; Booysen, 2015; Honwana, 2012). However, Honwana (2012, p. 136) argues that “what may appear to be apathy and depoliticization represents a conscious move away from traditional arenas of party politics towards other forms of engagement with society and the global world.” The idea of youth engaging in “unruly politics” (Richards, 1995) is consistent with the theme in generational tensions in the youth literature which suggests that young people have an inclination to resist or disrupt the status quo (Honwana, 2012).

Thus, there are two extremes in the discourse of youth politics—full, vocal, and sometimes aggressive participation or complete disengagement. However, many young people are likely to be somewhere in between these two extremes (Farthing, 2010). The Afrobarometer Survey provides a useful gauge of the actual perspectives and behaviors of African youth in regard to politics. The Afrobarometer Round 6 survey was conducted between 2014 and 2016 with citizens of 36 African countries (sampled to represent 76% of the continent’s population) answering a series of questions around democracy and governance. The surveys are based on self-reported behavior and experiences and are an important gauge of the realities of Africans, including youth (18–35 years) who formed 85% of the sample, with a mean age of 27.2 Two aspects of youth engagement in constitutional politics are highlighted: youth as voters and members or supporters of political parties, and youth as political candidates or office holders. The overall picture is that, first, young people are less interested in constitutional politics and less likely to engage in conventional political actions than older citizens and, second, that there has been a decline in youth participation in constitutional politics over time (Lekalake & Gyimah-Boadi, 2016).

Youth as Voters and Party Workers

One important question to ask is: Are young people interested in formal public affairs, given that an interest and attention to public issues and discussions may catalyze political behavior? The literature notes that youth are an important part of any successful political coalition (Bob-Milliar, 2014; Burgess, 2005). In particular, young people are often considered a constituency that can be rallied, particularly around progressive political agendas (Debrah, 2012; Diamond & Morlino, 2005; Gyampo, 2011).

Voting is a significant feature of electoral democracy and is an important measure of young people’s political engagement and inclusion. A trend analysis of Afrobarometer data from 16 countries from 2005 to 2015 suggests that although young people are less interested in politics, significant proportions of young people do engage in voting. The last round of Afrobarometer data showed that two out of three young people between 18 and 35 years voted in the last national election, and more than half reported being interested in politics and having contacted a community or political leader (Lekalake & Gyimah-Boadi, 2016).

Gender differences were observed in these behaviors in the Afrobarometer survey, with young women’s participation being low across almost all the indicators used (Lekalake & Gyimah-Boadi, 2016). Resnick and Casale (2014) find that other personal characteristics explain youth voting patterns. For example, older youth (those 25 years and older) are less likely to vote or to have time for politics than their younger counterparts, presumably because the former are more concerned with their jobs, finding work, starting families, and other transitions to adulthood. Further, the greater knowledge a young person has in politics and the electoral process, the more likely they are to vote. Young people’s predisposition to vote is also influenced by their perception that elections are fair and by the length of tenure of the incumbent, which indicates the likelihood that there can be political change (that is, that their vote will count). Moreover, the administration of elections (for example, the location of voting sites and the conduct of voter registration) can affect voting behavior (Evrensel, 2010). Young people are also quite active as party members, volunteers, and staff. As parties’ “foot soldiers,” they propagate their party’s messages, mobilize votes, and perpetrate low-level violence on the opposition (Bob-Milliar, 2014; Debrah, 2012; Gyampo, 2011).

Despite their relative marginalization within the party structures, young people as a bloc can be pressure groups within their own party to move it toward greater democracy. For instance, in Ghana in 2008, 2012, and 2016, youth within the New Patriotic Party (NPP), one of two major parties, demonstrated against what they saw as the imposition of candidates by the party leadership on constituents (Gyampo, 2011). Youth party members advocated for the inclusion of young people in the management of their party and as candidates and have been successful to the extent that the National Democratic Convention (NDC), the second of the two major parties, now has youth representatives at all party levels (Asante, 2012; L. Hlordze, personal communication, May 7, 2013). It is in part due to this activism that the number of student activists who stood for elections in the parliamentary primaries on the NDC ticket increased from 48% in 2008 to 66% in 2016 (E. Asante-Kissi, personal communication, May 3, 2013).

The same desire for greater democracy in June 2015 led to protests in Burundi after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for another three years in office. These protests brought thousands of people to the streets. In Africa Uprising Branch and Mampilly (2015) document more than 90 political protests in 40 African countries including from 2005 to 2014, many of which occurred after 2009. Despite media and popular perceptions of militant youth on the streets, the Afrobarometer survey finds that only about 10% of the youth reported having attended a demonstration or protest march (Lekalake & Gyimah-Boadi, 2016), indicating that protests are not a common form of political action among young people.

It must be noted that irrespective of the type of political system, whether democracy or dictatorship, youth politics can be confrontational or peaceful. Indeed, the fact that Ghana, for instance, is hailed as a beacon of democracy on the African continent has not made it immune from confrontational youth politics (Bob-Milliar, 2014; Debrah, 2012; Gyampo, 2011). Since 1992 several instances of confrontational politics and demonstrations at student and political party levels have resulted in casualties. Youth politics in Africa is typically confrontational (Asante, 2012; Gyampo, 2017). What seems to tame confrontational youth politics are co-optation and deliberate efforts to silence and marginalize them (Debrah, 2012; Ebata et al., 2005).

Youth as Candidates and Office Holders

Exclusion of young people from political systems and processes is most salient (considering the availability of comparative data) in their low representation in formal governance structures. In national politics, age limits to candidacy inhibit people’s political participation. For instance, the age at which individuals can stand for parliamentary elections is often higher than the voting age, age of consent, age of criminal culpability, and other markers of social or civic responsibility; it is 30 for Nigeria, 21 for Sierra Leone, and 18 for Kenya, Mozambique, and Kenya.

Beyond formal rules, cultural norms, social conventions, and lack of both social and financial capital limit young people’s participation. Thus, in practice and regardless of the formal regulations and laws, “people under the age of 35 are rarely found in formal political leadership positions.... It is common practice to refer to politicians as ‘young’ if they are below 35–40 years of age” (2013 UNDP Report on Youth, Political Participation and Decision Making). A 2014 Inter-Parliamentary Union report on the proportion of members of parliament under 30 years revealed that, out of 13 African countries that submitted data for the report, Zimbabwe had the highest proportion—only 3%—of persons under 30 years in a single or lower house of parliament. By comparison, Norway topped the list globally at 10.1% youth representation. Regarding upper houses of parliament, Kenya ranked highest among countries in the survey with 5.9% representation of people below age 30. The data on African countries were not disaggregated by sex, but the trend globally is that there are fewer female than male representatives across all age categories (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2014). This indicates that underrepresentation of youth is a worldwide problem but one that is more glaring on the African continent.

Ghana is illustrative of the low representation of young people in formal government structures. Politics in Ghana at the time of independence was essentially the politics of young people. The first prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, was only 32 years old when he was appointed the leader of government business, while the average age of his cabinet ministers was about 34 years (Austin, 1964). Indeed, in 1954, 6 out of Nkrumah’s 10 cabinet ministers were between the ages of 21 and 35 years, as were 82 of the 104 members of the General Assembly (Fhah, 1954). These leaders identified with the interests of young people and sought to represent them (Austin, 1964). As parliamentary democracy matured in Ghana, two parallel political processes occurred. On the one hand, the number of young people who could become Members of Parliament and be appointed ministers decreased drastically as older leaders who had been sidelined during periods of military dictatorship believed it was their time to occupy leadership positions (Ahwoi, 2008). The average age for legislators, ministers, and deputy ministers rose; while the average age for parliamentarians and ministers of state in Ghana’s First Republic around the 1960s was 35 years, in the Fourth Republic between 1992 and 2017, it was 55 years (Ahwoi, 2008; Gyampo, 2012). Ghanaian politics under the Fourth Republic appeared to adopt a convention of a higher age for participation in the legislature, executive, council of state, and other key policymaking institutions. The youthful political landscape gradually gave way to a situation in which older age became an unofficial requirement for participation in formal political decision-making.

Youth Alternative Political Activism

The overwhelming focus of the political science literature on national-level politics means that the activities of young people (especially females) in local and informal politics are often neglected. While much of this article has spoken about young people’s participation in national-level politics, it is important to recognize that youth create spaces for political self-expression at micro-levels or even outside of formal governance structures (see Branch & Mampilly, 2015). Moreover, the level at which political participation occurs, the strategies, and resources available for that engagement vary among young people.

The literature on the youth and politics indicates that significant youth activism occurs at the community level, a conclusion that is supported by the Afrobarometer 2016 survey, which finds that young people are more likely to attend community meetings than to participate in campaign rallies or protests (Lekalake & Gyimah-Boadi, 2016). Nonetheless, youth politics at the community level is not unrelated to national politics as they are tied needs—for employment, secure livelihoods, and political freedoms—that are inescapably bound up in the actions and inactions of the state (Dawson, 2014; Ojok & Acol, 2017; Thieme, 2010; Vigh, 2006).

Young people’s political activity is influenced by and expresses itself in other dimensions of life that are not obviously political. The area of young people’s experiences referred to as “youth cultures”—which encompasses “consumer goods, forms of education, avenues of work, leisure activities, and places for socializing” (Murillo, 2017, p. 131)—can be a space for expressions of citizenship. Further, youth cultures can be entry points for more overtly political actions, such as when apolitical engagement in social media leads to political discussions and even political activism offline (Kahne, Lee, & Feezell, 2013; Ojok & Acol, 2017). Youth cultures can also be sites of resistance, which is frequently used by the state and traditional authorities as a reason to further sideline young people from the processes and benefits of citizenship (Murillo, 2017; Newell, 2012; Plageman, 2012).

Collective action movements connecting young people across geographic space for a common cause are becoming an increasingly preferred avenue for young people’s political activism. These movements may have a range of stated or implicit goals, such as a desire “to redress injustices, achieve public goods, tackle sources of grievances, or express support to some moral value of principles” (Diani & Bison, 2004, p. 283). Regardless of the specific aims, collective action is inherently political. It often seeks to bring about change by evoking a sense of “we” (the powerless) versus “them” (the powerful) (Bakardjieva, 2015). Loader, Vromen, and Xenos (2014) argue that young people, disaffected with conventional political institutions, such as political parties, would rather engage politically through networks that they create themselves, using media that are more familiar to them. They evoke the image of the “networked young citizens” who are “far less likely to become members of political or civic organisations such as parties or trade unions; . . . more likely to participate in horizontal or non-hierarchical networks; and [whose] social relations are increasingly enacted through a social media networked environment” (Loader, Vromen, & Xenos 2014, p. 145).

The use of the Internet, and social media specifically, in collective action may appeal to young people because of their receptiveness to the novelty and experimentation that social media provide (Tandon & Brown, 2013). Social media were widely used in organizing events and sharing information during the Egyptian revolution in ways that sustained its activism. Twitter in particular received extensive use during the Arab Spring, leading some to call it the “Twitter Revolution.” Twitter, Facebook, and other media allow users to consume news but also to (re)produce it rapidly and efficiently. This has precipitated a shift where “traditional media are no longer the only voice that narrates and interprets relevant facts of immediate reality, or the only holders and makers of public opinion” (Ferré-Pavia & Perales García, 2015, p. 23; also Gyampo, 2017). Generally, the Internet provides collective action participants greater freedom in terms of the framing of their cause (Gyampo, 2017) rather than relying on traditional media to advance a narrative that may be at odds with the message that the movement itself wants to put out. It is this democratizing feature of the Internet, and particularly social media, that allows it to establish control over communication and makes it a powerful channel for alternative voices (Garrett, 2006; Van Laer & Van Aelst, 2010). The media also allows for alliances and learning outside of local spaces. For instance, the youth group Balai Citoyen, at the center of the Burkina Faso protests that toppled President Blaise Compoare in 2014, was reportedly inspired and supported by Y’en a marre, a pro-democracy group founded by Senegalese youth (Lewis & Ross, 2015).

It is, however, important to moderate the vaunted democratizing potential of the Internet by pointing out the ways in which it can widen inequality, given that income and education mediate access. In addition, regimes can close off the Internet and social media at will to censor or limit communication. Again, while the Internet provides greater opportunity for activists to reach their constituents, traditional media has better infrastructure and, in many cases, a certain level of credibility that collective action movements may not match.

In sum, collective action may provide more freedom to young people outside of the constraints of political parties and the state and can certainly influence targeted actors, but it may have a limited ability to bring about a real transformation in political institutions or in policies, as it is often difficult to maintain the momentum of youth-led collective action. First, the fast and pluralist information flow that the Internet provides and that allows young people to rally together across dispersed and diverse constituencies can also be detrimental to collective action, as it can lead to information overload (Bimber, 2001; Gyampo, 2017; Morozov, 2009). It may also result in dispersal and lead to repetitive sequences of quick mobilization around an issue followed by an equally quick decline in interest as a novel issue gains attention (Garrett, 2006). Second, sustaining collective action requires material and political capital, of which the usual opponents of these actions—the state, politicians, corporations, and lobbyists—tend to possess more.

Another reason why collective actions of the kind favored by some youth may not see the desired impact is that real change usually requires collaborative efforts—with governmental and nongovernmental actors—and a range of methods of engagement. Indeed, while often an expression of dissatisfaction with the capacity of formal political institutions to create change, collective action movements build on the work of these same structures in the area of mobilization and capacity-building (Tandon & Brown, 2013). Thus, without sustained and collaborative efforts and outside of formal political structures, young people may find themselves further marginalized from spaces within which decision-making occurs. In effect, collective action that attempts to influence politicians from the outside is best regarded as a complement to, not a substitute for, traditional, structured, and more sustained forms of engagement through party politics, voting, advocacy, lobbying, and dialogue.


From the foregoing, it is clear that young people’s participation in politics ranges from roles as agents and instruments for the development of democracy to their activities as purveyors of political conflict and violence. Nonetheless, they are still excluded or marginalized in formal political processes and structures. It has been argued that young people’s political exclusion is due to their own lack of interest in politics. However, their activism in alternative spaces of political engagement suggests that they may be disillusioned with formal political systems that they perceive to be flawed, corrupt, repressive, or exclusionary. It is important for current political regimes in Africa to address the deficits of political systems and expand the inclusiveness of political structures in order to boost young people’s participation and representation in politics. It is equally important to recognize, understand, and support the new forms and sites in which youth politics takes place in contemporary Africa.


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  • 1. In this article we use the terms “youth” and “young people” interchangeably.

  • 2. While the chronological age definition of 15 to 35 years is used in this article, the Afrobarometer surveys only respondents who are at least 18 years old.