22. Youth and Political Engagements in Contemporary Africa

E-mail of panel organisers: elina.oinas@helsinki.fi, henri.onodera@helsinki.fi

The panel discusses the concept of “politics” when studying youth in contemporary Africa. We wish to investigate different meanings of what “politics” may mean in unstable contexts. We hope to look at different contexts regarding state formation and democratic   structures, post-conflict developments, NGO involvement, donor funding and global connections. We welcome papers on forms, contents and experiences of political engagements in the everyday lives of young people – including potential de-politicization, professionalization, consumerism and struggles for mundane livelihood – in various contexts. Alongside the different empirical case studies the workshop wishes to shed light on the underlying modes of knowledge production and their implications to diverse audiences


1. Networks of the Unconnected: Youth and the Politics of marginality in Violent Contexts in Nigeria

Author: Akin Iwilade (Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria and University of Oxford, UK)


This paper investigates the politics of youth in violent and uncertain contexts in Nigeria. It examines the ways in which youth as a sociological category use marginality as a resource with which to construct meaning out of life in violent contexts. It makes two main arguments. First, it contends that the notion of the ‘marginal youth’ is more a political rather than a social fact. Therefore, it is possible to reconstruct youth marginality within violent contexts in ways that allow us to acknowledge the ‘marginal’ as being, in reality, in the mainstream of social life. Second, it argues that the idea of the ‘marginal youth’ is a construction both of the young as well as of dominant structures of power. This implies that claiming the space of the marginal is often a social tactic with which young people navigate complex social relations and not necessarily always the fact of their situation. In the case of dominant structures of power, ‘marginal youth’ makes it possible to construct young people as threats to social stability. In making these claims, the paper uses interview data from young people in two violent contexts in Nigeria to demonstrate the utility of ‘marginality’ and to question how we frame power in uncertain contexts where key markers of stability –government, state, tradition, religion, gender, territory and so on- are being intensely questioned. It uses the manipulation of ‘marginality’ by ex militants in the oil rich Delta region of Nigeria as well as similar patterns among youth vigilantes responding to the Boko Haram menace in the North East to show the politics surrounding the very notion of youth and its marginality.

2. “We hustle for our rights”: Young people’s political engagement with environmental resources in Northern Kenya

Author: Nanna Jordt Jørgensen (University of Aarhus, Denmark)


This paper discusses how a group of young people in a pastoralist community in Northern Kenya engage in negotiations of the management of an environmental resource, namely sand harvested from community owned land. My ambition is to shed light on how young people experience and conceptualize their political engagements with the environment, and to discuss how these engagements intersect with educational experiences, livelihood strategies, and social as well as existential aspirations.
The presentation is based on empirical material gathered during my PhD field work in Kenya. Driven by a phenomenological interest in the everyday life experiences of young people, the field work aimed to explore ethnographically how youth engage with the environment and environmental education in conditions where both social and natural landscapes and livelihoods are under pressure and in transition. This paper discusses in particular a group of young secondary school graduates who during a number of years had received paralegal training by NGOs. They involved very actively in negotiations of the communal management of sand, drawing on local and trans-local ideas and practices related to natural resource management, rights and justice, and community, while at the same trying to enhance their own livelihood opportunities and social position.
In their own words, these young people “hustle for their rights” to benefit (individually or communally) from the sand. Inspired by other scholars who have recently discussed the notion of hustling and its use by youth involved in “informal” economic activities in African cities (e.g. Munive, 2010; Thieme, 2010), I will elaborate analytically on the empirical term of hustling. An exploration of the meanings of hustling for one’s rights illuminates, I argue, that young people's political engagements with the environment form part of a more general quest for survival and mobility, which is to a large degree shaped by their educational experiences.

3. “Yentie Obiaa” : On Popular Political Engagement in Ghana’s Fourth Republic.

Author: Joseph Oduro-Frimpong (Ashesi University College, Ghana)


In contemporary Ghana’s democratic culture, the bulk of research on the ‘pulse’ of political engagement focuses primarily on official institutions. In this presentation, I examine informal but equally important facet of democratic political engagement of Ghanaian youth. First, I focus on the works of two young political cartoonists, Black Narrator and Akosua. Specifically, I show how their works, which appeal to many educated Ghanaian youth, skillfully blend global cartoon conventions and local communicative aesthetics, to critique sociopolitical issues such as corruption, unemployment and cyber fraud. Second, I examine partisan political engagement by some Ghanaian youths of the two main political parties – National Patriotic Party and National Democratic Congress – via Facebook and Whatsapp. Here, I explore photo-shopped images that re-present some perceptions or issues that members of these respective political parties hold of their political opponents. Through these discussions, I demonstrate that to fully grasp Ghanaian youth political engagement, one has to explore such participation within the complicated entanglement of popular media genres.

4. State Coercion and Youth Political Mobilization in Zimbabwe; the National Youth Service Programme, 2001-2007

Author. Ivo Mhike (University of the Free State, South Africa)


The Zimbabwe National Youth Service (NYS) of 2001 was part of a broader National Youth Policy formulated in 2000.  The youth service was designed to instil a sense of responsibility among the youth, develop a sense of duty, patriotism and responsibility among other things.  However, the programme gained notoriety for producing elements that terrorised the nation through murder, rape, beatings, abductions, torture, looting, and arson on behalf of ZANU PF against its real and perceived political opponents. The ‘Green Bombers’, as the National Youth Service graduates were pejoratively called, became a potent tool of violence who were ready to maim and kill ostensibly to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Zimbabwe. As a result, the programme became synonymous with violence and the atrocities which were perpetrated by these youths have been documented. Over and beyond that, the youths are also presented as ready and willing agents who availed themselves to ZANU PF political schemes and their label as enthusiastic perpetrators of violence is a strong one. This study will explore state coercion as a tool for youth political mobilization. I argue that the process of recruitment, training and participation in the NYS involved complex power relations between the youths, on one hand, and the state and other social groups on the other hand. I will analyse the nature of the agency which the youth exercised as a vehicle to navigate and explore the stereotypes of perpetrator and victim in order to understand the impact of political violence on youth. Recasting existing literature, I will analyse the intricate experiences of the National Service youths to go beyond the clear-cut demarcations between victim and perpetrator and accommodate overlaps and ambiguities which existed. Through this study I hope to contribute to the broader debates in youth studies that focus on vulnerability and victimhood as opposed to agency and responsibility for action in the fields of war and politics.

5. Wade dégage ! Y’en a marre! Youth Mobilizations and Representation(s) of Citizenship in Senegal

Author: Ndiouga Benga (University Cheikh Anta Diop, Senegal)


The analysis of the process of governance in Africa is dominated by a conception which does not give enough visibility to the dynamics of appropriation and domestication, to the permanent recreation of the public space by the practices of ordinary people (subaltern resistances). The experiences and the experimentations of the everyday life (possibilities of becoming) offer unfinished geographies, going against the reducing imaginary of the politicians and the bureaucrats. In Senegal and particularly in Dakar, the protest movement is carried by young people, inscribing their presence in the political and social space. The claim to justice and recognition on the one hand, and the desire to moralize the political field on the other one, have found their field of expression and legitimacy in the street demonstrations,  in 2011 and 2012, to oppose themselves to the authoritarian excesses of the President Abdoulaye Wade. The Y’en a marre movement reflects the production of new imaginaries of engaged citizenship and responsibility . It articulates the slogan of the "New Type of Senegalese" (NTS), around a variety of technics of mobilization, such as the urban cultures (graffiti, rap), the barricades or the call to vote on the elections’ day. The aim of this paper is double: first, to analyze the reconfiguration process of youth mobilizations and second, to understand the new link of youth to citizenship in Senegal. This imaginary citizenship served as inspiration in neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

6. Lost, silent, moving on? Praising the Lord and thinking about politics with young adults in Kitgum

Author: Henni Alava (University of Helsinki, Finland)


During a meeting with a group of young adults in Kitgum town in January 2013, a rather fierce debate broke out over whether or not youth in Northern Uganda were “lost”. In this paper, I propose to take this debate as a starting point for analysing some of the ways in which the intertwinings of religion, morality, and politics are commonly conceptualised in Acholiland. The notion of youth being lost was commonly ascribed to youth by elders, who had vivid memories of what life, and the relationship between youth and elders, had been like in Acholiland before the 20 years of war in the region. However, the feeling of being somehow lost or confused was often also present in the discussions I had with young adults themselves. The sensation was, in my understanding, related to a silence about the past, evidenced in the many life story interviews I conducted with active Catholic and Anglican parish youth in Kitgum, who narrated to me their lives in war-torn Kitgum with absolutely no reference to the war.
This silence was alternately understood in Kitgum as a sign of unaddressed trauma, or as a sign of the ability of people to leave the past behind and move on. In this paper, I seek to make some sense of the ways in which the young informants of this study sought to make sense of their past, their present, and their future. Of particular interest to me are the ways in which religious and political community are imagined in these processes of sense-making. My preliminary hunch is that ideas of religious community and religious language reflect and are reflected in ideas of the political. In the post-conflict situation in Kitgum, characterised by much uncertainty and confusion, religious and political imaginaries are constantly shaken. Not being “lost”, and moving on, thus requires a constant balancing act between remembering and silencing the past, and between trusting and despairing over the future.

7. Theorizing youth and political engagements in contemporary Africa - embedded engagements and situated agency

Authors: Elina Oinas and Henri Onodera (University of Helsinki, Finland)


The paper will discuss the challenges and potential openings when theorizing recent political engagements by young people in different contexts on the African continent. The paper draws from an ongoing research project with seven researchers situated in Cairo, Tunis, Nairobi, Lusaka, Johannesburg and Cape Town. The project constantly debates conceptual frameworks in youth research, feminist theory and political sociology, pondering on the applicability and translational challenges when used and elaborated upon in various situations that are both using and not using language familiar from global protest movements and civil society engagements. In this paper we will especially focus on the theme empowerment, embeddedness and freedom.

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