By Wilson Idahosa Aiwuyor
After 23 years as president, Tunisian leader, Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, was forced out of office by disgruntled youths over rising cost of living, unemployment, and misrule. Protests broke out in mid December 2010 after the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed graduate, who set himself on fire out of frustration following police harassment for hawking vegetables without permit. Youths from different cities soon demonstrated in solidarity with Bouazizi and in protest of a regime they had increasing grown impatient with. They succeeded in booting their autocratic leader out of power onto exile on Friday, January 14.
According one report, some of the protesters displayed placards stating, "We want bread, and water and no Ben Ali." This is symbolic of the aspirations of Tunisian youths and African peoples for access to means of livelihood, food, decent housing, health care, and a society devoid of self-centered dictators like Ben Ali.
In one conservative estimate, $1.8 trillion has been illegally flown out of Africa between 1970 and 2008. What kind of action by the people will ensure that the next four decades of the 21st century are not characterized by such illegal flows that neglect the people who wallow in grinding poverty? This is the question.
My prognosis is that the move by Tunisian youths is an indication of what is to come in Africa as youths’ power and energy increasingly become the basis for resistance and transformation.
Africa is a continent with one of the highest proportion of youth as a percentage of its population. According to the United Nations , 60% of Africa’s population is less than 25 years old. And this percentage is estimated to increase over the next couple of decades. I have noted elsewhere that Africa could reap enormous demographic dividends from such population dynamic. But I also agree with Michelle D. Gavin, who wrote in “Africa’s Looming Mega Challenges,” that, “the concentration of young people coping with poverty, unemployment and underemployment, and few avenues for social mobility and economic opportunity can lead to volatile mix of alienation and frustration, especially as media images from the industrialized world continue to penetrate deeply into the region, magnifying the sense of relative deprivation.”
It is up to African leaders to grapple with the challenges of investing in these youths and meet their yearnings and aspirations. Indeed, African leaders must understand the urgency to meet these aspirations or face a situation where the youths unleash the new generation tools of organizing and channel their energy and talents to bring about the change they want.
A recent UN report, The State of African Cities 2010: Governance, Inequalities, and Urban Land Markets, emphasizes the need for sweeping policy reforms on the continent in order to cope with emerging challenges of urban settlement. The report states that the challenges ahead “require well-devised public policies that can steer demographic growth, turn urban accumulation of activities and resources into healthy economies, and ensure equitable distribution of wealth.” The report further highlights the urgency of this forward planning for African cities and infrastructure development, stating that, “sweeping reform is also critical for effective delivery of affordable housing, services and urban infrastructures commensurate with the magnitudes of these rapidly expanding urban concentrations.” These sweeping reforms can be better carried out by regimes of visionary and people-oriented leadership across the continent.
AFRICAN YOUTHS LEADING THE WAY
From Angola to Cameroon, Algeria, Egypt and Ethiopia; from Ivory Coast to Libya, Uganda and Zimbabwe, there abound the likes of Ben Ali who seem to mistake public office for kingship throne or personal property. For how long can they continue to do this without facing a similar fate as Ben Ali? The first decade of the 21st century has just ended, and the pace of technological change and changes in the international system indicate that socio-economic changes would have to keep pace or at least not be stagnant in order to avert the wrath of disgruntled populace.
African states need the right leadership to bring about the tolerable measure of socio-economic change. This visionary leadership is one that must understand the needs and aspirations of the African people, especially the youths. This leadership must also understand that the drastic changes in domestic realities in Africa vis-à-vis the new and constantly evolving realities of the international system dictate that the old ideas/framework about development in Africa would have to be overhauled.
Unfortunately, many African leaders are still operating in the old mindset, and are using the pre-21st century ways of doing things to address 21st century challenges. Many African leaders seem to be far behind the youths who seem to understand better that the world has changed. Our youths are operating in a world where the use of anti-imperialist narratives by freedom fighters-turned-despots no longer appeals to young people. Many African leaders are so out of touch with grassroots realities that they do not completely understand how today’s African youths are different from youth of previous generation. We are now living in a world where local youths easily connect with other youths elsewhere and deploy social media tools for a vast array of activities. The distance among today’s African youths and between them and youths of other societies has been bridged by technology. These youths understand better how governments in other societies strive to meet the aspirations of their people, and wonder why their governments care less about their own aspirations. They have easy access to information about their leaders’ corruption and profligacy and can share same on Facebook in minutes. These youths of our Facebook and YouTube generation are activists and journalists in their own rights. They can organize with the click of a computer mouse and through text messaging.
After seeing the revolutionary power of youth mobilization and social media tools of organizing that was pivotal to the election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the USA, these youths recognize more than ever that they have power to bring about non-violent revolutionary change. It is the power of African youths to cascade this pattern of youth mobilization that many African leaders either underestimate or have yet to grasp. They are far behind.
Ben Ali could no longer repress or intimidate Tunisian youths, even after labeling them as terrorists. Similarly, many African leaders may soon discover that the old tactics of repressing people’s aspiration through propaganda and the barrels of the gun is an obsolete. In the book, Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics, the author states that the essence of a revolution is that old thinking, ideas, and ways of doing things that sustained the old era can no longer hold the society together. This revolution does not have to be violent or bloody. In fact, the contradictions of the disconnect between many African leaders and the grassroots reality and aspirations of their young people who yearn for a new kind of leadership, new ideas and transformative policies may result in some revolutionary tsunamis that would take the ruling elites unawares. Again, this revolution does not have to be bloody or violent, since violence begets violence.
What our leaders need to be scrambling about is not how to suppress the energy and power of these youths, but how to set an agenda for policy and governance overhaul to facilitate adequate investment in them. This will enable young Africans channel their energy and talents toward societal transformation in lieu of social unrest.
After the collapse of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, African leaders and Western powers, especially France, who had allied with the dictator even up to his last hour in office, quickly came out to denounce him and register their solidarity with the people and youths. This is a classical example of the youths leading the way, and others joining the revolutionary bandwagon.
PEOPLE’S POWER ACROSS THE EQUATOR, BEYOND THE ATLANTIC AND THE MEDITERRANEAN
It is no news that France was a close ally of Ben Ali’s repressive regime. There are even reports that a top French official had contemplated assisting the dictator to crack down on demonstrators on grounds of “security cooperation” agreements between the two countries. People’s power, not just in Tunisia, but also in the Diaspora, served as a bulwark against France granting asylum to Ben Ali after the collapse of his regime. According to one report, France rejected Ben Ali’s request for asylum on the ground that the move “would upset the hundreds of thousands of French residents of Tunisian origin.” This shows what Africans can achieve when they create solidarity between the home front and the Diaspora. This solidarity is a force that Africa’s despots and their imperial accomplices cannot dare challenge. However, a major obstacle to this solidarity remains the anti-imperialist rhetoric and manipulations used by Africa’s autocrats to engineer division among the Diasporas and between the Diaspora and the home front when these leaders are about to lose their hold to power. This is evident in Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe, where the governments that have over the years allied with foreign elements to Africanize exploitation and repression play the anti-imperialist card when it is time for them to respect the democratic wish of the people. In the case of Tunisia, where there was no room for such manipulation, the alliance between the home front and the Diaspora made the aspiration of the people to prevail. It is now up to the people to ensure that a truly democratic and transformed society is borne out of this revolution.
For how long would African leaders continue to allow African youths waste away in their desperate moves to cross seas and deserts for greener pastures overseas? For how long do African leaders think that these youths, who know they have the power to chase their repressive leaders from power, would continue to tolerate misrule, looting, and repression?
The model of development where the goal of the so-called poverty alleviation is treated as though it was an isolated objective can no longer hold. African leaders must embark on the holistic approach of promoting good governance and investing in human beings to meet their aspiration to live in dignity. This approach must include investments in quality and accessible education beyond mere universal basic education; investments in universal health care; in decent and affordable housing; and in agriculture and job creation.
The victory of Tunisian youths who took to the streets to actualize their aspiration for a better society calls for deep reflection among African ruling elites. They must embrace good governance and invest in their people or face the wrath of the 21st century African youth.