To harness youth’s transformative power in elections, address their needs

Thursday June 27 2024

People attend a demonstration against Kenya's proposed finance bill 2024/2025 in Nairobi, Kenya on June 25. PHOTO | REUTERS


A 2023 Open Society Barometer Report found that “young people around the world hold the least faith in democracy of any age group.” These findings confirmed similar research findings, especially in Africa, that show a low level of participation among young people in democratic processes such as elections – even though they constitute the majority of the population.

A 2022 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) Report noted the increasing and worrying trend of disenchantment among African youth.

The transformative power of young people when they choose to engage in social and political processes has been evident over the years—they define the trajectories of their countries, defend their democracies, and put an end to injustices.

For example, young people in Senegal asserted their power to defend their democracy in 2024 while in Tunisia, they led a revolution (Jasmine Revolution) in 2011 that led to the ouster of long-term dictator, Zine El Abidine. In Burkina Faso, they were at the forefront of the third term revolution in 2014 that rejected attempts by President Blaise Compaore to run again and extend his years in office.

Read: AKINNIYI: A pathway to boost African democracies

Young people in South Africa led a #FeesMustFall movement in 2015 to stop the increases in fees and demand government funding for universities. The #EndSARS protests, saw young Nigerians united toward putting an end to police brutality in Nigeria.


Yet, despite their transformative power, Africa’s young people are engaging less and less in democratic processes. In Nigeria, for example, despite voter registration data from the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) showing that more than half (76 percent) of new voters were young people aged 18-34 years, it did not translate into young people turning out in large numbers to vote for the candidate that was popular with them in 2023.

In Kenya, the number of young people registered to vote in the 2022 elections dropped by 5.27 percent compared to 2017. According to the then-chairperson of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, Wafula Chebukati, although 22.1 million people registered to vote in 2022, only 39.84 percent were young. He blamed the drop on economic hardships and corruption, discouraging young people from engaging in the electoral process.

In South Africa, over the years, there has been a decline in youth engagement in electoral processes, as shown by the data from the Independent Electoral Commission. Overall registration rates among the 18-34 age group decreased from 69 percent in 2005 to 57 percent in 2021. This number, however, increased marginally for the 2024 elections.

At the heart of youth apathy is a lack of trust in electoral systems, which they perceive as corrupt and unfair, with many feeling that their vote will not make a difference. For example, post-apartheid South Africa has seen significant political changes, but many young people still perceive the electoral system as corrupt and inefficient. Young people are also beset with political disillusionment owing to a history of unfulfilled promises by politicians.

They often don’t see tangible improvements in their lives or communities. Issues like inequality, unemployment, and inadequate service delivery persist. The enormous economic challenges that young people face due to incredibly high unemployment rates and economic instability have meant that they prioritise meeting their immediate needs over political engagements.

Read: OBBO: Some Africans have their bad democracy, good coups, people’s dictators

In addition, young people do not see themselves represented among political candidates or feel that their specific issues are not addressed; they may feel disconnected from the political process and less inclined to participate.

Nevertheless, the efforts aimed at addressing the low participation of young people in elections – for example joining social media platforms popular with the young people such as TikTok, use of influencers and forming political parties with youth appeal – have over the years missed the point for they have been based on the assumption that merely providing information to young people will increase their participation in elections.

These efforts, despite their good intentions, have not translated into any tangible result, highlighting a need for a more comprehensive and effective approach that takes into account the unique challenges and needs of young voters.

Harnessing the transformative power of the young people in Africa will require more than joining TikTok and hiring influencers. It will require addressing the systemic problems that have worsened the situation of young people and ensuring that the political systems work to address their needs.

It will require addressing the issues at the heart of youth apathy, including endemic corruption and unfairness, socio-economic challenges, and ensuring a representative democracy. By so doing, we will restore their trust in governance structures and perhaps their faith in elections.

Ruth Omondi is a communications professional and PhD student with research interests in digital democracy