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The Africa Confidential Blog

  • 7th January 2021

Africa in 2021: Youth and technology drive change

Blue Lines

After a year of global health emergency and economic destruction, our correspondents look forward to how governments are reacting to popular demands for reconstruction and a new political order

Although so much reporting over the past year has been on the coronavirus pandemic and elderly politicians winning elections, the focus this year will have to include the rising generations and their ties to technology as a force for social change as societies try to rebuild. Nowhere will these forces be more important than in Africa, given the toll of collateral damage caused to the continent's polities and economies by the public health emergency. 

In the early days of the pandemic making landfall in Africa, governments such as those in Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, and the more populous states in Nigeria and counties in Kenya, distinguished themselves by quickly imposing public health restrictions, however unpopular they proved. 

From Africa's health professionals, led by John Nkengasong at the Africa Centres for Disease Control in Addis Ababa and Matshidiso Moeti of the World Health Organisation in Brazzaville, came clear and honest messaging and policies to coordinate practical responses across the continent. Local populations, some with experience of deadly epidemics, understood and reacted quickly to the information. 

Different fears grew as the pandemic dragged on around the globe and other vital health services were put on hold. Although Africa had been spared the worst ravages of the coronavirus, the damage to its social institutions and economies was far worse than in the Americas or Europe. With economies already on the margin, there is far less room for manoeuvre in Africa. 

That was reflected in the deepening mood of disenchantment in many countries.  

Some governments, such as South Africa, took this is as a sign to change tack. Risk-averse President Cyril Ramaphosa has been desperately trying not to waste this crisis. Until now, he has been unable to win wide support for his ideas about restructuring the state and rebooting the economy. This year, he is set to take the battle to the supporters of his predecessor and the Secretary-General of the ruling party. 

Straitened by the unexpectedly strong performance of the opposition in last month's parliamentary elections, Ghana's President Nana Addo Akufo-Addo told voters that he understood their message: for cooperation and against polarisation. Malawi's judges won huge plaudits for their landmark rejection of a rigged election as did the country's civic institutions for organising a credible vote to usher in a legitimate new government.  

In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari, who has lost two of his closest allies to the pandemic, has been backing away from his Stalingrad defence of the naira, along with fuel and power subsidies. It is a financial imperative as oil prices dive, not an ideological conversion driving the policy shift. 

Other regimes have hunkered down and stepped up repression such as Abdelmajdid Tebboune's in Algeria and Abdel Fattah el Sisi's in Egypt, both hit by high infection rates and their weakened export-dependent economies. Using variations of that playbook, Tanzania's President John Magufuli bulldozed his way to another election win, a feat that Yoweri Museveni, 34 years in power, wants to replicate in Uganda on 14 January. The same forces apply to Edgar Lungu in Zambia, facing elections in August, and Emmerson Mnangagwa in Zimbabwe. 

What these leaders have to confront is the rising power of Africa's youth, with 60% of the continent's people under 25. It is just the start of that demographic curve when well-organised youth can use their electoral and convening power to trigger social change. In militarised regimes such as Sudan's under Omer el Beshir's National Congress Party, it was youthful revolutionaries who powered the grassroots campaign. It is a wave that started a decade ago in Tunisia and continues to play out across the region.

Now, it is married to digital technology, allowing activists to constrain security agents' ability to commit atrocities with impunity. Although the continent's youth have benefited most from increased social investment over the past two decades, the upswing of growth from successive commodity booms is not producing jobs for the new generation, a socio-economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. Like much else, the growth of the youth's political power in Africa has been accelerated in the pandemic. And it isn't going away, with or without vaccines.