A study by Rorisang Lekalake and E. Gyimah-Boadi of AfroBarometer titled ‘Does less engaged mean less empowered?’ has found that political participation was lacking behind among African youth, in particular the women. These are the key findings of the study: Political engagement is generally lower among African youth than among their elders, particularly in terms of voting. Two-thirds (65%) of 18- to 35–year-old respondents who were old enough to vote in the last national election say they did so, compared to 79% of citizens above age 35. Slightly more than half (53%) of African youth report being “very” or “somewhat” interested in public affairs, while two-thirds (67%) say they discuss politics with friends or family at least “occasionally.” Compared to their male counterparts, young women report significantly less interest (48% vs. 60%) and discussion (61% vs. 74%).
• Attendance at campaign rallies is the most popular form of pre-electoral engagement among young Africans: One-third (33%) say they attended at least one in the previous year, compared to 37% of older citizens. The gender gap in participation in rallies averages 10 percentage points and is largest in East Africa (14 points) and West Africa (13 points). African youth are less likely than their elders to participate in civic activities: Less than half (47%) of 18- to 35–year-olds say they attended community meetings at least once during the previous year, while 40% joined others to raise an issue (vs. 57% and 47% for older citizens). Young women’s participation also lags behind that of their male peers on these measures of civic activism (by 9 percentage points, on average), particularly in West Africa and North Africa (both by 14 percentage points).
• Not quite half (48%) of youth say they contacted political or community leaders during the previous year to discuss an important issue, with lower reported engagement levels among young women than men (43% vs. 53%).
• Youth participation in demonstrations and protest marches is lower than in more conventional forms of civic and political engagement, but higher than among their elders: 11% of young survey respondents say they attended at least one protest in the previous year (vs. 8% older citizens). Again, women report lower participation levels than their male peers (8% vs. 13%).
• Comparison over time in 16 countries shows that youth engagement levels have declined since 2005/2006 across most of these indicators, particularly interest in public affairs and measures of civic activism (both by 9 percentage points). Afrobarometer is a pan-African, non-partisan research network that conducts public attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions, and related issues across more than 30 countries in Africa. Five rounds of surveys were conducted between 1999 and 2013, and findings from Round 6 surveys (2014/2015) are currently being released. Afrobarometer conducts face-to-face interviews in the language of the respondent’s choice with nationally representative samples that yield country-level results with margins of error of +/-2% (for samples of 2,400) or +/3% (for samples of 1,200) at a 95% confidence level. Round 6 findings are based on almost 54,000 interviews completed in 36 countries.
Youth political engagement in Africa
The AU’s African Youth Decade action plan defines “youth empowerment” in terms of young citizens’ freedom or ability to formulate and act upon their own choices, rather than the wishes of others: “Young people are empowered when they realize that they have or can create choices in life, are aware of the implications of those choices, make informed decisions freely, take action based on those decisions and accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions” (African Union, 2011, p. v). The document acknowledges the need to enable this empowerment by ensuring youth representation in the formulation, implementation, and monitoring of government development policies. Empowerment therefore requires young Africans to be engaged in a range of activities in order to ensure their full representation in the political process. Afrobarometer measures citizen engagement in a range of dimensions: the extent to which they are interested in and discuss politics (“cognitive engagement”), their participation in elections and in civic or community events, and their views on various forms of political protest. Survey results show that young citizens are less likely to engage in the political process than their older peers, except on measures of protest activity. Young women are even less likely to be engaged in the political process than their male peers.
Interest in and discussion of politics
In a measure of how mentally engaged they are with the political process, a majority of survey respondents of all ages say they are “very” or “somewhat” interested in public affairs and discuss political matters “frequently” or “occasionally” with their friends and families. Youth report slightly lower interest than their older peers (53% vs. 58%) and the same level of discussion (both 67%). Interest in politics varies widely by country, from seven in 10 among Tunisian (73%) and Malawian (71%) youth to only one-quarter of young Ivoirians (24%). Northern and Southern African youth are the most likely to say they are at least “somewhat” interested in politics (58%), followed by East Africans (53%), West Africans (51%), and Central Africans (44%). Interest levels increase with age, education, and material security as measured by the Afrobarometer Lived Poverty Index. Youth who never lack basic necessities of life (“no lived poverty”) are significantly more likely to report being interested in public affairs (57%) than those living with frequent deprivation (“high lived poverty”) (48%). In addition, youth who are employed full time are the most likely group to express an interest in public affairs. Two-thirds of young Africans say they discuss political matters “occasionally” (49%) or “frequently” (18%) with friends and family, while 32% say they “never” do so. Reported levels of frequent discussion of politics are highest among Malawian youth (38%) and lowest in Algeria (8%). However, Guinea has the highest proportion of youth who “never” discuss politics in their intimate circles (46%).
Although there is no difference between the discussion levels of respondents aged 18-35 years and those aged 36 years and older, the youth sub-sample shows modest differences by age. Younger respondents (aged 18-25 years) are slightly less likely to discuss politics at least “occasionally” than those aged 26-35 years (65% vs. 69%). Discussion levels among young citizens increase with educational attainment and employment. Six in 10 (61%) young women discuss political matters at least occasionally, compared to about three-quarters (74%) of young men – a gap that is comparable to the gender difference in interest levels (12 percentage points). Across 16 countries tracked since 2002/2003, young Africans’ interest in public affairs has declined significantly (from 81% in 2002/2003 to 58% in 2014/2015) while discussion of politics has been stable since 2005/2006. The largest declines in interest levels between 2002/2003 and the most recent survey occurred in Tanzania (by 38 percentage points) and the smallest in Malawi and Mozambique (both 14 points).