African youth are being driven to extremes – if they speak out they risk the wrath of government oppression but if they remain silent they risk falling into despair, says Moky Makura.
I recently walked past a lone woman picking up rubbish on a public beach. Intrigued by her solo and near impossible mission I asked if she was being paid or if she was part of an NGO beach-cleaning drive. She was neither. She was simply fed up with the rubbish and decided to do something about it. Because of her, there is one less carrier bag, plastic bottle and broken toothbrush on the beach in Cape Town.
It was Mother Teresa who said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to make many ripples.” This actions of the woman on the beach stayed with me, because it struck me that we are living in a society where fewer people are choosing to take action for what they believe in. Despite a young and restless population on the continent, we seem to be increasingly content to leave it to someone else to create the change we want to see.
There have been a few examples where the brave cast their stones, but it hasn’t ended well. The brutal response to the #ENDSARS protests in Nigeria in 2020 by the government showed the world that nothing good comes to those who challenge leadership.
It was the same in Uganda when Bobi Wine took on President Yoweri Museveni during the county’s elections this year which led to his arrest and detention. And in Zimbabwe, journalist Hopewell Chino’ono ended up in jail when he used social media to draw attention to President Emmerson Mnangagwa brutal crackdown on media.
The meaning of democracy
The reality is that in many African countries any sort of dissent is seen as a challenge to power and not a call for change. President Mnangagwa summed up the attitude of some African leaders in his response to growing opposition in the country last year; “The bad apples that have attempted to divide our people and to weaken our systems will be flushed out.”
As the continent’s experience with democracy deepens, it is worth reminding our leaders what it means to have a democratic system of government, one that makes space for alternative perspectives, one that doesn’t ‘flush out’ alternative voices.
The word democracy comes from the Greek word “demos”, meaning people, and “kratos” meaning power; together they advocate for the principle of “power of the people”. At the very least, democracy should give Africans a platform to call for change without fear of incarceration or death.
Movements like #Black lives Matter and #MeToo were successful in creating change because they empowered people to have a voice, to take action and be part of the solution. As well as the space, they also provided permission to speak out and a blanket of safety for protection.
And these are the very things that are missing in many African countries and that has led to two extreme outcomes – dispirited, disenfranchised youth who choose inaction as a way of self-preservation or extremist, violent groups who choose the sword as the only truly effective way of driving change.
The violence is evidenced by history; in the number of military coups African countries have experienced since independence. A study by US researchers, identified over 200 coup attempts in Africa since the late 1950s and about half of these were successful. In the last two years there have been six coups and attempted coups in Sudan, Chad, Guinea, Mali and Niger.
It is in the number of separatist movements we are seeing on the continent… 27 countries from Angola to Zimbabwe have a group within looking to get out. In some cases, the result is a smouldering civil war like the conflict in Tigray, Ethiopia. These conflicts led to the Africa Union declaring ‘Silencing the Guns’ as it theme for 2020. The reality is that we have failed in our mission to silence the guns and by doing so, we have successfully silenced the voices of a generation.
The gift of courage
By not creating space for dissenting voices and punishing those who do dare to seek change, we are effectively endorsing retribution and stifling transformation. The long-term impact is that we are steering young people – our future leaders away from politics, towards scepticism and ultimately inaction.
As the year ends, I wish to give every young African a gift. It’s the same gift, Lion asked for in the 1939 children’s film; The Wizard of Oz – it was the gift of courage. Once we rediscover our sense of outrage at the things we have been promised that haven’t been delivered by the people we voted in, it will be a gift I hope we can use to catalyse the change we need to see in our countries.