How Generation Z could be giving African leaders autocratic licence

Monday September 25 2023

Supporters of Niger's National Council for the Safeguard of the Homeland gather for a demonstration in Niamey near a French airbase in Niger on August 11, 2023. PHOTO | AFP


African leaders could bank on the young people to win elections and stay in office.

But this group of the population, mainly aged below 30, could also be the biggest spoilers of democracy on the continent, allowing the leaders to prolong their stay by riding on the population’s increasing lack of belief in democracy as a way of delivering public goods.

New data from two separate surveys indicates that young people across the continent are increasingly falling off the democracy bandwagon, something that could allow the leaders to moot illegal ways of staying in power without fear of upsetting the populace. And the use of the internet is coming in handy for those manipulations.

In the next week until the end of October, four African countries are due to hold their local elections. Eswatini, Liberia and Mozambique will have new local leaders.

But internet rights watchdogs say these countries could stay in the recent trend of peers across the continent where internet was shut down to disable violent protests, make it difficult for opposition groups to mobilise support or just allow despots to rig.

Read: Eswatini bans protests as African mediation begins


Only Mozambique has never shut down internet. But Mali, Liberia and Eswatini restricted internet use as authorities cracked down on protests recently, or during elections, according to an analysis by the Internet Shutdown Tracker run by Dutch cybersecurity firm Surfshark and internet access watchdog NetBlocks. Mali is due to hold its first elections since a set of coups in the last three years.

Last month, Zimbabwe shut down its internet during elections. A few days later, Gabon did too. The military in Gabon would later nullify the elections and topple its declared winner, Ali Ben Bongo.

Observers in Zimbabwe labelled the elections below standard.

Cross-cutting issues

“The internet is an integral component of democratic elections. When it’s restricted, people can no longer freely read the news or share opinions with their fellow citizens online,” said Gabriele Racaityte-Krasauske, Surfshark spokeswoman on data from 30 countries across the world that have restricted internet for some reason in the past three years, 20 of which were from Africa. And include Ethiopia, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Malawi and Somalia.

Read: Ethiopians still blocked from social media

“Any internet restriction undermines people’s freedom, but restrictions during elections interfere with the principle of fair and free elections.”

Yet those tendencies may not be annoying to everyone. According to a survey released last week by the Open Society Foundations, which funds independent justice and democracy support organisations, digital rights rank lower than civil and political rights, economic rights and environmental rights on the hierarchy of civil liberties in Africa, consistent with the global trends.

But it also shows that young people around the world have the least faith in democracy of any age group, with more than a third of the polled group (35 percent) supportive of a strong leader who does away with parliament, elections or blurs the line between separation of powers of arms of government.

The report titled, The Open Society Barometer: Can Democracy Deliver?, says democracy remains widely popular across every region of the globe, with 86 percent saying that they would prefer to live in a democratic state, it is also widely believed that authoritarian states can deliver more effectively than democracies on priorities for the people, reflecting people’s impatience with governments for not delivering solutions to common problems such as such as poverty and inequality, climate change.

Anything’s preferable

Open Society Foundations commissioned pollster Savanta and Ukrainian partner Gradus Research to survey 36,344 respondents from May 18 to July 21, 2023, in 30 countries across the world of people aged 18 and above.

Read: Military coups in Africa: What determines a return to civilian rule

Data were weighted to be nationally representative in each respective market by age, gender, region and respondents had to answer up to 45 questions, either online or through local vendors, while considering local sensibilities. The sample represents a population of 5.5 billion people.

In Africa, respondents were polled in Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Tunisia, South Africa, Tunisia, Egypt and Senegal. In all these countries, 86 percent of respondents said they preferred to live in a democracy. Many of them also feared of violence due to political unrest especially in Kenya, South Africa, Senegal and Nigeria.

As many as 57 percent of the young, aged 18 to 36, believe any form of democracy is preferable, a lower figure than 71 percent of their older counterparts. Worryingly, 42 percent of the young group support military rule, something people aged 56 or older loathe.

Military juntas are now in power in Sudan, Chad, Gabon, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. In Niger, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso, the military came to power accusing the elected leaders of failing to deliver public goods in security and ending poverty. They have become popular among the youth.

Mark Malloch-Brown, president of the Open Society Foundations, said the findings point to a worrying direction for the global governance.

“Our findings are both sobering and alarming. People around the world still want to believe in democracy,” he said of the findings.

Read: AKINYEMI: Democracy to Africa has two sides? Just look at Niger

“But generation-by-generation, that faith is fading as doubts grow about its ability to deliver concrete improvements to their lives. That has to change.”

The survey delivers some form of paradox. People generally doubt elected leaders work in the public interest yet a majority of them identify indicators of good governance such as human rights and justice as “a force for the good of the world.”

The same values, however, are doubted by 42 percent of those who don’t believe in human rights as a good thing. They think Western countries use them as a tool to punish the poor.

Ever-present corruption

There are commonalities on what governments must do, however, including in ending poverty, taming climate change and providing public services. In countries as diverse as Turkey and Kenya, there are large groups struggling to feed themselves.

And corruption is a big concern in Colombia just as it is in Nigeria. In India, as it is in Kenya, people consider climate change a big problem.

Read: NGUGI: Is there anything our public officials will not steal?

Whoever provides those public goods, however, may not be a democrat, according to the young.

“Young people aged 18 to 35 are the most sceptical of democracy, with just 57 percent deeming it preferable to other types of government,” the survey published last week says.

“A large minority of young people surveyed (42 percent) feel that military rule is a good way of running a country.

“A similar number (35 percent) feel that having a strong leader who does not bother with elections or consulting parliament/congress is a good way of running a country. This compares to 20 percent that support military rule and 26 percent that are in favour of a strong leader in the 56 plus age bracket.