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Across Africa, Young Leaders Emerge to Push for Change

This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum, which gathered experts last week in the Greek capital to discuss global issues.


“Not a lot of democracy happening at the moment,” the BBC journalist Will Ross said on the radio in August about the situation across West and Central Africa while reporting on a postelection coup in Gabon. He cited a litany of examples across the region — Guinea, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Mali — where there have been coups or armed rebellions in the last two years.

And yet, despite concern for the region and worries about vote-rigging in recent elections in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe, there are examples across the continent where democracy continues to prevail.

After terrible violence in the last few presidential races in Kenya, last year’s election was largely peaceful. In Tanzania, there have been some hopeful signs this year of a return to press freedom. The World Health Organization recently highlighted Botswana’s government as an example of African leadership when it came to universal health services and research and development.

It is the young, of course, who often bring about political sea change. Because Africa has the youngest population in the world — more than 60 percent of Africans are under 25 — there is the belief that its youths can move the needle toward more democratic ideals.

A number of young African movers and shakers — including Namatai Kwekweza, who was awarded the inaugural Kofi Annan NextGen Democracy Prize — discussed this issue at the Athens Democracy Forum last week. In phone and video interviews, six young Africans who are helping to shift the political narrative across the continent were asked how democracy could blossom.

Fatou Jeng, founder of Clean Earth Gambia, taking part via video in the panel Rethinking Climate: Flight and Fight at the Athens Democracy Forum.Credit…Athens Democracy Forum

Fatou Jeng

Gambia, 27, founder, Clean Earth Gambia

Like most people in her country, Fatou Jeng’s family depends on agriculture for survival. “My dad is a farmer, and my mother sells vegetables at the market,” said Ms. Jeng, who has a master’s degree in environment, development and policy from the University of Sussex in England. “I grew up seeing how climate change affected the main source of income for my family.”

Gambia, along Africa’s Atlantic coast, also faces the threat of rising sea levels, with scientists estimating that a rise of just one meter, about three feet, would inundate the capital, Banjul.

With these issues weighing heavily on her mind, Ms. Jeng founded Clean Earth Gambia in 2017 (registering it officially in 2020), which works at the intersection of gender, climate conservation and education. The organization not only trains elementary school students and teacher coordinators on climate-related issues — the subject has yet to be incorporated into the country’s elementary school curriculum, she said — but has also planted more than 30,000 trees across Gambia. In Banjul alone, the nongovernmental organization, which is funded by grants and partnerships, planted 11,000 coconut trees along the city’s coastline to “reduce our vulnerability to rising sea levels,” she said.

The recipient of numerous awards, Ms. Jeng earlier this year was appointed by the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, to his Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change. She was a panelist at the Athens Democracy Forum.

“In 2016 when we ousted our dictator Yahya Jammeh, it was the young people that were at the forefront in campaigns speaking about the ills of what was happening. … This shows the power of young people, when they mobilize and come together for a common goal. For democracy to prevail, it’s really important that we do not tokenize young people.”

Tom Twongyeirwe Junior

Uganda, 31, co-founder, Universal Coalition of Affirming Africans Uganda (U.C.A.A.)

“I get my passion because of my background,” said Tom Twongyeirwe Junior, co-founder and national coordinator of the Universal Coalition of Affirming Africans Uganda. It is the only national coalition in Uganda of religious leaders and people who are religious advancing the inclusion of L.G.B.T.Q. people there.

Raised in a rural village, Mr. Twongyeirwe said he was 13 when he first felt attraction to other boys. “I thought something was wrong with me,” he said, adding that as a boy without access to things like television and radio, “it is silly to me when I hear people in Uganda saying people are gay because of influences from Western culture.”

After being outed by a family member while at university, he struggled with the dichotomy of being both Christian and gay. In 2017, along with three colleagues, he founded U.C.A.A., which now has 67 members that include religious leaders, people who are religious and religion-based organizations. Their hope is that through dialogue with people who practice a religion — 98 percent of Ugandans say they do — they can help change the narrative in the country, which earlier this year signed into law an anti-homosexuality act that calls for the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.”

“I understand the power that religious leaders have in this country, and I understand how much damage their teachings are causing the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community,” said Mr. Twongyeirwe, who this year was named an Obama Foundation African leader. “That is why I exist at the moment and why the U.C.A.A. exists at the moment, to bridge that gap and reconcile between the two.”

“What we need to do as younger people on the continent of Africa is not to back off, to stay focused and get involved in active politics. Because when we are seated at the table where decisions are made, then we are able to influence those decisions.”

Credit…Mohamed Zakraoui

Elyes Guermazi

Tunisia, 35, co-founder and director, International Institute of Debate

Elyes Guermazi said his grandfather, an activist during the revolution in Tunisia in 1956, was the person who first stoked his interest in politics. “He would tell me stories related to our revolution — what was the meaning of democracy, how education is important,” said Mr. Guermazi, “and he made me very interested in civic engagement.”

However, by the time he came of age, Tunisia was in the throes of a dictatorship that suppressed political freedoms. “So we couldn’t talk a lot about politics,” said Mr. Guermazi, who has done consulting for UNESCO, Oxfam and the United Nations Population Fund. The Arab Spring, which began with revolts in Tunisia, changed all of that, and with a deep interest in how debate could help shape and shift political discourse, he co-founded the International Institute of Debate in 2013.

The idea was to civically engage young people — often in debates set up in cafes — who otherwise had no space to openly express their opinions on politics and society. “Our vision is to engage every young person in his or her community,” Mr. Guermazi said, adding that part of their success has been connecting politicians and citizens in proactive debates that finish with concrete action plans.

“Sometimes you can articulate a problem, but you don’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “But if people are engaged, trained and have the capacities and tools, it will be easy for them to optimize.” More than 30,000 people have participated in the program so far, and the organization has expanded to Jordan and Lebanon.

“When communities start to create changes themselves and design things together, even small initiatives which bring hope, that would make governments inspired to join efforts.”

Credit…Athens Democracy Forum

Namatai Kwekweza

Zimbabwe, 24, founder, WeLead

Growing up in a country spiraling through the most difficult period since its independence helped shape Namatai Kwekweza into an activist. In 2015, when President Robert Mugabe was still in charge, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled that companies could fire workers by giving them three months’ notice with no severance pay. Ms. Kwekweza’s mother was one of those affected by the layoffs, and that meant there was no money for college.

“It’s those instances that make you very much aware of the vulnerabilities that we have as citizens,” Ms. Kwekweza said. “The government can wake up and make decisions that are affecting our lives and we have no control over that. How do we bring them to task?” She volunteered for a number of organizations and began reading — a lot. She became passionate about leadership development and advocacy, and founded WeLead in 2017.

WeLead, which works on a membership model and receives grants and support from other foundations, has provided leadership development for aspiring politicians and leadership training for young women. The organization has also worked at educating young people about the country’s constitution, especially as it relates to freedom of expression and freedom of thought.

“When the constitution is under constant and perpetual threat of being amended to keep certain people in positions of power,” said Ms. Kwekweza, who was arrested in 2020 on specious charges of promoting public violence, “we recognize that it presents for us a sense of urgency to educate people about the constitution so that they can defend it when the time comes.” She was presented with the Kofi Annan NextGen Democracy Prize at the Athens Democracy Forum.

“I believe that the behavior of militaries across Africa is so worrying. Because they always come up with this propaganda that civilian authority is weak, it has failed. … We know the script, so we don’t condone military takeovers across the continent. But I also am conscious of the fact that sometimes young people that seem like they are celebrating coups are left with no option because they’re also trying to shake themselves away from colonial shackles that also have made their lives miserable.”

Ibijoke Faborode

Nigeria, 34, founder and chief executive, ElectHER

In the aftermath of the presidential elections in Nigeria in 2019, which were not only marred by political unrest and instability but also resulted in only 4 percent of female candidates’ being elected to positions of power, Ibijoke Faborode came to a conclusion: “OK, something needs to be done.”

“As Nigerians we can complain a lot, we talk about the things that are happening, but in terms of active citizenry, there’s always been that wide level of apathy,” she said, explaining why she founded ElectHER four years ago. “I kept asking myself: ‘Do I keep complaining? Or do I want to fix this?’”

Ms. Faborode, who holds a graduate degree in business and has worked for both the British government and The Africa Report, an online news outlet, started researching what could be done differently to encourage more women to run for local and national positions. In its four years, ElectHER has run initiatives including Agender35, which helped mobilize resources for female candidates across parties and runs leadership and legislative fellowships for aspiring female politicians.

Change, of course, takes time, and after the 2023 election cycle the number of women in the National Assembly actually dropped by 19 percent. But that has not deterred Ms. Faborode, who said the plan next year was to expand the program beyond Nigeria. “We want to create networks between African politicians, African legislatures, African women who are aspiring,” she said, “because when you can create that ecosystem of support, it’s a stronger movement.”

“As a continent we can collaborate more and share stories. … We need to start sharing the stories, then see how we can collaborate better. And I think that we’ll start seeing things shift bit by bit.”

Credit…Michael Dahm

Goitse Konopi

South Africa, 32, co-founder, Suppple

As a young boy growing up near Pretoria, Goitse Konopi not only was influenced by his parents’ careers in technology — they opened an internet cafe in the late 1990s and his mother was head of technology at a university — but also by the television show “The West Wing.” The American political drama series “piqued my interest,” he said, “and I started engaging with all things politics.”

While at college studying international relations and economics, Mr. Konopi was a paid intern in the office of the South African president responsible for the National Planning Commission, which drew up South Africa’s National Development Plan 2030. That experience led to other positions within government, but Mr. Konopi came to feel he would be better placed to “provide change” through technology and software.

He and Eldrid Jordaan, a professor at the University of Johannesburg, founded GovChat.org, a social impact technology platform. That project has helped almost 13 million South Africans apply for relief grants and report municipal issues. (GovChat.org last year won a protracted legal battle with Meta over being anticompetitive).

Suppple — the triple P’s refer to public-private partnerships — is focused on helping citizens have easier access to government websites and forms. It also allows governments to collect data to deliver more targeted services. They hope to work with 10,000 local governments across the continent, and a number of municipalities in Kenya and Senegal are already using their software.

“Our goal is that our technology is used to power their government services digitally seamlessly, in a way that is awesome for their citizens and residents,” he said, “and also awesome for government on the other side where they get really useful insights.”

“The best thing societies that are aligned can do in terms of their democratic ideals is not to dictate nor to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ scenario. … There is a rural southern African saying that says that a child who is discarded by the village will burn it down to experience its warmth.”

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