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In September of last year, thousands of young protesters took to the streets in Cameroon to demand the resignation of President Paul Biya, who has ruled the West African country since 1982. Biya’s government responded predictably, with a brutal crackdown. His forces arrested opposition leaders and killed protesters while the rest of the world remained mostly silent. Now 88 years old and still firmly in power, Biya is almost 70 years older than the average Cameroonian, making him the most senior leader in the world relative to his citizens. Two generations of Cameroonians have grown up under his authoritarian rule, and a third could conceivably, as well; Biya did away with term limits in 2008, so he will be eligible to run for reelection in 2024.
Aging, out-of-touch leaders are a problem across Africa. The average African ruler is 63 years old, while the continent’s population—the youngest in the world—has a median age of only about 20 years. Remarkably, that 43-year age gap marks an improvement over a decade ago: the wave of African protests that began with the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and continued in Senegal, Malawi, and elsewhere toppled a host of geriatric leaders.
Protests also contributed to the downfall of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who were 93 and 75, respectively, at the time of their ouster. But a number of other aging leaders, such as Guinea’s Alpha Condé (81), Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang (78), Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni (76), and Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh (73), have in recent years managed to win additional terms in office despite pressure to step down from protesters. Even where elderly rulers have stepped aside or died in office, such as in Zimbabwe and Algeria, their successors have often been drawn from the same generation.
The extreme age gap between African leaders and citizens has generated much handwringing. Many analysts worry that it is stoking irresolvable tensions that will lead to instability and violence. Recent protests, many of which have been met with harsh crackdowns, seem to bear out this ominous prediction. But rather than a threat to political stability, Africa’s rebellious young people are better understood as harbingers of the continent’s democratic future. Behind the scenes, youth protest movements are laying the groundwork for eventual transitions, prioritizing the long, hard work of building support for democracy.
Africa’s aging leaders may have the upper hand for now, but their failure to address the pressing economic and political concerns of the burgeoning youth cohort means that the current groundswell of popular unrest is unlikely to abate. Ultimately, these popular pressures should initiate a bottom-up process of democratization, one that deepens the shallow electoral systems born of previous eras of popular unrest and leads to genuine democracy.
Africa is both the youngest and the fastest-growing continent. Roughly 60 percent of its population is under the age of 25, and the median age is around 20. In Asia and South America, by contrast, the median age is 32, while in Europe and North America it is closer to 40. Whereas most regions of the world face slowing or even negative population growth rates, Africa’s continues to increase. By some estimates, the continent’s population could double by 2050 to approximately 2.5 billion people. By then, one of every four people on the planet will live in Africa, compared with one in six today.
Some world leaders have suggested that the stubbornly high fertility rates of many African countries portend a future of violence, chaos, and instability—all exacerbated by the threat of climate change. In 2017, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron blamed the continent’s woes on women having “7 or 8 children.” Scholars, too, have stoked fears of a “youth bulge,” suggesting that demographic trends will prove destabilizing, especially in low-income countries that are unable to incorporate young people into formal labor markets. The rise of violent protests across Africa over the past decade seems to validate these concerns. But demography is not destiny. The real threat to Africa’s future is not its youthful population but rather its aging authoritarian leaders, who continue to cling to power even as they fail to serve their young and restless populations.
Popular uprisings have driven two previous waves of democratization in Africa, both of which came up short. In the 1940s and 1950s, protest movements across the continent helped dismantle colonial regimes. Yet in the decades that followed, many of the newly independent countries soon succumbed to authoritarian rule—often, as their leaders either abandoned their democratic ideals or were ousted in military coups. The 1980s and 1990s brought a second wave of protest that again seemed to herald a democratic dawn. Across the continent, restive populations—this time with the backing of the West, which had proclaimed a new era of global democracy in the aftermath of the Cold War—pressed their leaders for democratic reforms. But even though many countries introduced multiparty elections, few cultivated robust civil societies or built inclusive, egalitarian institutions. And in many places, even these modest democratic gains have since been eroded by rulers who manipulate constitutions to remain in power, often with little condemnation from an international community that has grown tired of promoting democracy in Africa and elsewhere.
These failures have bred cynicism about popular protests. Some analysts have criticized the relative disorganization, decentralization, and ideological incoherence of many protest movements, as well as the willingness of some protesters to use violence. And although some popular uprisings have succeeded in removing the incumbent, others have imploded as a result of infighting or petered out in the face of government repression. Even where autocratic leaders have been toppled, they have too often been replaced by other members of the same regime or by new leaders who are equally uncommitted to democracy.
It is too early to write off Africa’s young democratizers.
Still, it is too early to write off Africa’s young democratizers. History shows that it often takes years or even decades for a popular uprising to yield substantive change. Anyone looking at, say, the Indian independence movement in 1945 or the U.S. civil rights movement in 1961 might reasonably have concluded that both were failures, since neither had yet spurred the profound changes that would become visible in hindsight.
History also suggests that geopolitics can play a role in determining the success or failure of social movements. In the aftermath of World War II, African anticolonial leaders were able to leverage their experiences fighting for democracy abroad against European imperialism at home. In a similar manner, American civil rights activists used the ideological competition of the Cold War to their advantage, seizing on the hypocrisy of the United States’ global message of freedom to demand domestic political reforms. In both cases, activists combined political mobilization at home with moral suasion abroad to build support for their movements, ultimately catalyzing broad political and societal transformations.
In some ways, the global climate for today’s wave of African protests is inauspicious. The enthusiasm for democracy promotion that Washington and other Western capitals exuded in the immediate post–Cold War period has largely dissipated, leaving many of today’s pro-democracy movements to fight their own battles. Yet as the failed democratic movements of the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated, this is not necessarily a bad thing. While many Western leaders rhetorically championed democracy during that period, they simultaneously pushed for harsh economic structural adjustment programs as a condition for political support. This encouraged African opposition parties that sought Western backing to coalesce around a very narrow set of orthodox economic policies that flattened the political landscape and led to a spike in inequality across the continent. Whereas many African countries previously boasted strong left-leaning parties that championed economic and social equality, the 1990s witnessed a dramatic turn away from socialism and toward ethnic- and religious-based parties, many of them led by figures from old regimes. The political disillusionment felt today by so many young Africans has its roots in this period, when opposition parties were disciplined by global capitalism.
New geopolitical forces impede pro-democracy movements today. China’s emergence as Africa’s largest trading partner has given the continent’s aging autocrats a powerful ally. Russia, India, and the Gulf states have also bolstered authoritarian leaders by signaling that they will overlook repressive behavior so long as their economic and strategic interests are served. Fearful that they will squander what little influence they have left, many Western governments have largely done the same, paying occasional lip service to democratic ideals but largely declining to support Africa’s youthful democratizers. As a result, the young people trying to displace the continent’s calcified authoritarian order are learning they have only themselves to rely on.
But a long and challenging road to democracy might be the more productive path. Recent scholarly research has shown that sustained, bottom-up mobilization can produce deeper forms of democracy than can fleeting elite efforts. For example, the sociologists Mohammad Kadivar, Adaner Usmani, and Benjamin Bradlow examined all 108 democratic transitions that occurred between 1950 and 2010 and found that “one of the most consistent and powerful explanations of substantive democratization is the length of unarmed pro-democratic mobilization prior to a transition.”
Protracted mobilization prior to political transition can deepen democracy in multiple ways. As protesters and activists confront opportunities and challenges, they learn through experience how to build movements that are inclusive, participatory, and responsive to the needs of ordinary people. Shaped by their involvement in democratic struggles, these veteran activists often remain deeply engaged in the political process after the old regime has fallen. In Sudan, for example, the popular movement that overthrew Bashir in 2019 has sought to maintain pressure on the country’s interim leaders even as some of its members have joined the transitional government. On various occasions, protesters have returned to the streets to remind the new authorities of the demands of their revolutionary movement. In the long run, this kind of democratic engagement may provide an effective counterbalance to the military, which retains the upper hand in the country’s ongoing transition process.
The longer a protest movement persists, moreover, the more pro-democracy activists it produces who can eventually take up positions in a new regime, helping to steer it in a more democratic direction. As they did in Sudan, protest leaders in Burkina Faso, Tunisia, and elsewhere have played an important role in nascent democratic transitions.
Even where veteran activists do not formally join the government, they often contribute to a more vigorous and independent civil society, which in turn can help to ensure that a new democratic order is not captured by political or economic elites. In Senegal, for instance, the Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) movement that helped thwart President Abdoulaye Wade’s controversial bid for a third term in 2012 refused entreaties by his successor to join the government. Instead, its members continued to organize the country’s urban and rural poor to ensure that Wade’s successor, Macky Sall, remains committed to the democratic process. When another round of antigovernment protests broke out earlier this year in response to Sall’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies, Y’en a Marre was again at the forefront.
A similar movement that led protests against former President Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lutte pour le Changement (Fight for Change), pivoted away from its focus on elections after the country experienced a disappointing political transition when Kabila left office in 2019. Most recently, it has mounted a campaign to educate the rural poor about COVID-19. Such actions don’t generate headlines the way large-scale protests do, but they are arguably more important for fostering a culture of bottom-up democratization.
Unlike the elites who led Africa’s previous political transitions, the current protesters are wary of superficial democratization. Through hard experience, they have learned that internationally sanctioned elections do not lead to meaningful democracy. That’s why they have placed their faith in street protests and in democratic organizations that seek to meet the basic needs of ordinary people. As these activists and their movements have matured, they have grown both more politically sophisticated and more committed to substantive, participatory democracy—often remaining in the streets even after their initial demands have been met. Slowly, sometimes painfully, they are chipping away at the problem of aging and out-of-touch autocratic regimes. And as their ranks swell in the coming years and decades, they may succeed where previous generations of pro-democracy activists have failed.
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