Youth vs the gerontocrats: a potent political force tests Africa’s ageing rulers

Until last November, Luzige Masudi, a skinny young man with the physique of a ballet dancer, made his money as a hip-hop artist, paid to dance at clubs and bars in Kampala, the boisterous Ugandan capital. But for now at least, 20-year-old Masudi’s dancing days are over.

On November 18, he was shot in the chest and face by a soldier during a protest against the arrest of presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, popularly known as Bobi Wine, the 39-year-old ragga star turned voice of Uganda’s disaffected youth. Masudi is one of an estimated 770 of Wine’s followers who were arrested or “disappeared” by authorities in the run-up to January’s presidential election. Another 80 were killed, according to the National Unity Platform, Wine’s party.

“It’s tough living in Uganda as a young person,” he says. “There are no job opportunities for young people. I don’t think there are any opportunities.” After three months in hospital guarded by security guards, Masudi escaped and is now in hiding. Unable to dance because of the pain, he quotes an expression in Luganda, one of Uganda’s main languages: “When someone presses you hard, blood gushes out.”

Even before the election, Masudi barely got by, earning about USh200,000 ($56) a month from gigs and odd bricklaying jobs. Politically, his protests were in vain. Wine, the red beret-wearing presidential candidate, was prevented from holding rallies, ostensibly because of Covid-19 restrictions, and social media platforms were blocked. Yoweri Museveni, the 76-year-old president now in his 35th year of power, notched up yet another controversial victory.

Protesters march on Democracy Day in Lagos, Nigeria, where President Muhammadu Buhari, 78, banned Twitter from mobile networks after it removed a tweet in which he threatened a violent crackdown against people in the south-east © Temilade Adelaja/Reuters

Uganda, where the median age is 16.7, young even for Africa, has come to epitomise a continent in which a cadre of immovable gerontocratic leaders of Museveni’s generation are fighting an unstoppable urban force: hundreds of millions of disenfranchised, ambitious and often unemployed young people who are fed up with politics-as-usual and a lack of opportunities. Without significant political and economic reforms, the disparities could threaten the stability of some governments — as has already happened in the likes of Sudan and Algeria. 

This clash of youth against gerontocrats, some of whom are former military men, is playing out in the world’s youngest continent where three in every five people are under 25. The median age in Africa is 19.7 against 42.5 in Europe and 48 in Japan. The average age of Africa’s leaders is 62, according to the UN Development Programme.

In theory, a young population can be an economic boon, bringing energy, technological skills, new ideas and a bulging workforce. President Emmanuel Macron of France has called African youth “the most dynamic in the world” and the continent’s principal asset. Many nations in Europe, the US and Asia are grappling with the opposite problem. Just this month, China, which like the US has a median age of 38, allowed couples to have three children — a reversal of decades of population control.

Yet in Africa the supposed demographic dividend remains mostly theoretical. Not enough jobs are being created to absorb what could be a productive workforce. Few governments have done anything like enough to engineer the conditions — in education, infrastructure, rule of law or ease of doing business — to attract domestic or global investors. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which measures a series of indicators across the continent, has consistently shown a broad, if imperfect, correlation between democratic accountability, institutional strength and economic progress.


Yoweri Museveni

Age vs median age of population 76 / 16.7

Years in power 35

‘The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people but leaders who want to overstay in power,’ Museveni said after seizing office in 1986. Fast-forward 35 years and history has proved him right. Despite his promise not to stay in power too long, he was inaugurated for a sixth term last month.


Muhammadu Buhari

Age vs median age of population 78 / 18.1

Years in power 5

Buhari, who ran the country as military dictator from 1983-85, finally won the presidential prize in 2015 on an anti-corruption and national security platform. But by that point Buhari was increasingly frail. During his two terms, the economy and the security situation across the country have steadily deteriorated.

Unemployment numbers are almost meaningless, disguising as they do chronic underemployment. But even official data paint a horrifying picture, with jobless rates for 15 to 25-year-olds well above 50 per cent in both Nigeria and South Africa, sub-Saharan Africa’s two biggest economies.

Fertility rates across much of the continent remain high, at an average of about 4.5 children per woman. That means populations are continuing to grow quickly — the number of Africans is likely to nearly double over the next 30 years — while the so-called dependency ratio of working to non-working age population stays elevated. Much of Asia’s growth miracle occurred when fertility rates fell sharply, lowering the dependency ratio and increasing the relative size of the productive workforce.

Lack of work means that many young people, especially in the cities, are obliged to do odd jobs, hawk on the streets or start their own microbusinesses. The lucky few become coders or entrepreneurs. But while some agitate for political change, others drift into crime or even terrorism, a rising problem across the Sahel and in much of Africa from Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to northern Mozambique.

Officials in some countries are aware of the importance of delivering reforms. In Djibouti, where 73-year-old President Ismail Omar Guelleh has run the country in the Horn of Africa since 1999, some 70 per cent of youngsters are unemployed. “There is a very strong, natural demographic growth,” says Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh, Djibouti’s finance minister. “The risk is there, and it will be more and more pressing. That’s why we don’t have the time. We have to reform. We have to offer opportunities.”

A man browses Facebook on his phone in Kampala, Uganda, Social media platforms were blocked for much of last year’s election campaign in the country
A man browses Facebook on his phone in Kampala, Uganda, Social media platforms were blocked for much of last year’s election campaign in the country © Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty

Digital era

As well as demographic trends, two other forces are turning Africa’s youth into a potent political force: urbanisation and technology. Of the world’s 30 fastest-growing cities, 21 are in Africa, according to the UN. In 1990, less than a third of Africa’s population lived in cities. By 2015, that had risen to half, according to the Paris-based OECD.

Africa’s youth is also connected. Of the 1.2bn people on the continent, 477m have unique mobile subscriptions, according to GSMA, the mobile trade body. Thanks to the falling price of smartphone handsets made by companies such as Transsion, a Chinese manufacturer, 272m people are mobile internet users. WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook, is a near-ubiquitous communication tool.

More people in cities thus have access to both information and the power to organise, including planning protests. Surveys by Afrobarometer and other polling organisations show that the aspiration for democracy is strong, as is impatience with sham democracies that prolong the tenure of multi-term autocrats. “It means having a first world mindset, but being stuck with Third World leaders with Third World ideas,” Wine told the Financial Times shortly after Museveni’s latest inauguration in Uganda last month.

Africa’s leaders well understand the dangers of rapid, free-flowing information in helping opposition forces to organise. Last year alone there were 26 internet shutdowns in Africa, according to Access Now, an independent monitoring group.

In Uganda, social media platforms were blocked for much of the election campaign. “We are in a digital era,” says Sarah Bireete, director of the Center for Constitutional Governance in Kampala. “One of the examples to show that Museveni is detached from reality is the way he casually shuts off the internet.”


Paul Biya

Age vs median age of population 88 / 18.7

Years in power 38

Biya wins a sham election every seven years, and like many of the region’s long-serving heads of state, enjoys the backing of ex-colonial power France. He has consolidated power among the francophone regions, even as he battles a secessionist insurgency in the anglophone west. His son Franck is reportedly being groomed to succeed him.


Emmerson Mnangagwa

Age vs median age of population 78 / 18.7

Years in power 3

When Mnangagwa pushed 93-year-old Robert Mugabe aside in a 2017 coup, there were hopes of a new era for Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa, nicknamed ‘the crocodile’, promised to free politics and repair the economy. If anything the government has become harsher and the economy more chaotic. Some Zimbabweans even miss Mugabe.

This month, the government of Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s 78-year-old president, banned Twitter from mobile networks indefinitely after the social media company removed a tweet in which the president threatened a violent crackdown against people in the south-east. The government said that the platform had been persistently used for “activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence”.

‘Out for themselves’

Internet shutdowns or not, these converging forces of demographics, urbanisation and the spread of information amount to a potent mix. In country after country young people are becoming a new political force, a nemesis of out-of-touch leaders sometimes three or four times their age. But like Museveni, many leaders have become skilled at gaming systems that are democracies in name only.

This new force has already played decisive roles in securing political change in some countries. In Sudan, in an echo of the Arab spring, disenchanted young professionals led months of protests that culminated in April 2019 in the military overthrow of Omar al-Bashir after 30 years in power. In the same year in Algeria, predominantly youthful protesters triggered the ousting of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the then 82-year-old president who had insisted on retaining power even though he had not spoken in public since 2013 after suffering a stroke. In Ethiopia, young nationalists in the Oromo region, known as Qeerroo, helped topple the 27-year-old regime of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front, paving the way for Abiy Ahmed, now 44, to become Africa’s youngest leader.

Customers work at laptops in a coffee shop in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the jobless rate for 15 to 25-year-olds is above 50 per cent
Customers work at laptops in a coffee shop in Johannesburg, South Africa, where the jobless rate for 15 to 25-year-olds is above 50 per cent © Guillem Sartorio/Bloomberg

Many leaders are well aware of this new force. In relatively stable Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta, 59, said last year: “We have a youth bulge that, if not properly handled, can be a time-bomb that can blow this country to pieces.”

In other countries, young people have mobilised politically only to be crushed by the state. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 210m people (125m of them under 25), tens of thousands of young people began protesting in 2017 against police brutality. Their social media-driven mass movement #EndSARS, named for the notoriously violent Special Anti-Robbery Squad, has sometimes been compared with the Black Lives Matter protests in the US. The movement was halted in October 2020 when members of the Nigerian army opened fire at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, the commercial capital, killing 12.

Many have blamed the bloody denouement on Buhari who, like Bouteflika, has often been absent in moments of crisis. A former military leader who won the presidency on his third attempt in 2015, Buhari spent months of his first term on medical leave in London for an unnamed ailment. 

“Young people are just generally alienated from the government, and old people are not willing to let go of power,” says Rinu Oduala, a 22-year-old Nigerian activist. “What happened at Lekki tollgate was a crackdown on a youthful population that was showing exemplary leadership,” she says of the largely peaceful demonstrations. “The ruling elites weren’t able to see that.”

Africa’s age divide, age of country leaders v median age of their populations (selected countries)

On Kukawa Street in Lagos Island, Grace Ojo, an administrative officer at a law firm, ticks off the challenges facing Nigeria, a country whose population is projected to reach 400m by 2050, and evident in other, less populous countries. They include soaring inflation, sluggish growth, a near-absence of social services, rampant corruption at every level of government and a decrepit power supply. “We are not fine right now,” she says. “These old people are weak, and they are just out there for themselves.”

Ojo says it is hardly surprising that some of Nigeria’s youth should adopt the extractive methods of earning a living they see all around them. Violence and insecurity have spread to nearly every corner of the country and thousands have been killed or kidnapped by roving gangs of armed criminals. “The youth don’t have anything to do, so they turn to criminality because the so-called leaders are corrupt themselves,” she says. “What do you expect the youth to do? They follow their example.”

Buhari is a rare two-term gerontocrat in west Africa, a region full of leaders who are loath to budge. Some seek to rule for life like Equatorial Guinea’s 79-year-old Teodoro Obiang, who has held on to power since 1979 when he overthrew his uncle in a coup. Others enact constitutional changes allowing them to prolong power: last year, Alassane Ouattara, Ivory Coast’s 79-year-old president, and Alpha Condé, Guinea’s 83-year-old leader, were both re-elected beyond original term limits, brushing off significant protests against the moves.

In Cameroon, which faces a separatist crisis in its anglophone regions, president Paul Biya is a decade older than Buhari and has ruled for nearly seven times as long. Biya, 88, spends much of his time at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva. His four decades in power mean that most Cameroonians — 62 per cent of whom are under 25 — have known only one leader.

Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine says Africans have a ‘first world mindset’ but are ‘stuck with Third World leaders with Third World ideas’ 
Ugandan opposition leader Bobi Wine says Africans have a ‘first world mindset’ but are ‘stuck with Third World leaders with Third World ideas’  © Abubaker Lubowa/Reuters

Zacheus Angwabong, a 22-year-old student and activist with Stand Up For Cameroon, says of his country’s ageing elite: “When you have people who know that they are operating at the end of their lives, they don’t promote sustainable development because they know they will not be alive to enjoy those facilities.” Angwabong argues that, in Cameroon at least, young people are partly to blame because they have disengaged from the political process. “They have left politics to the old,” he says.

Dynastic succession erodes the legitimacy of many countries’ political systems. Biya’s 49-year-old son Franck is reportedly being groomed to replace him as Cameroon leader. In nearby Gabon, President Ali Bongo replaced his father Omar in 2009 after he died following 42 years in power. Last month, after the death of Chad’s 68-year-old president-for-life Idriss Déby on the battlefield, his son Mahamat was swiftly installed. In Uganda, some believe Museveni’s son, Muhoozi Kainerugaba, a military officer, may someday replace his father.

Addressing discontent

Without improvements in democratic accountability, experts and activists warn, more civil strife is likely in many countries as youthful movements step up their demands for a change from the old guard.

Last month, days before the sixth presidential inauguration of Museveni on May 12, fighter jets flew low, armoured cars paraded the streets of Kampala, and snipers stood on rooftops to scare away potential young troublemakers. “The government harshly engages the youth who riot, but needs to learn to address the social and economic reasons for the discontent,” says Fred Muhumuza, an economist at Makerere University in Kampala.

Meanwhile, Museveni’s challenger Wine was trapped in his house, surrounded by soldiers. “It is a pain not only to have an old president, but to have a person that is disconnected in terms of mindset,” he said. “They use brute force to try and subjugate and silence the angry and outspoken young people.”

But Wine has a warning for those leaders on the continent who can neither provide their young people with opportunities nor are willing to leave power when their time is up. “Those who make peaceful change impossible,” he said, “make violent revolution inevitable.”

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