The latest coup d’état that occurred in Niger has increased the number of successful coups witnessed in the West African sub-region to six over the past two years. As was the case in Mali and Burkina Faso in previous months, African youths appear to be celebrating the coup on social media and in the streets. This has naturally prompted discussions concerning their stand with regard to respect for democratic principles and the rule of law.
This celebration of military power grabs has outraged many African intellectuals. Some see it as reminiscent of the dark days of the 70s and 80s, when Africa became the world’s capital of coups. This older generation, which holds bitter memories of military regimes, considers the young to be naive, irresponsible and lacking in both political and moral values. Others among this African elites – who believe only leaders brought to power through electoral processes deserve to rule – perceive today’s youth to be poorly educated, prone to manipulation, and victims of populism.
For these elites – who multiply their publications and media appearances, taking turns condemning coups and showing contempt for what they perceive as a disoriented youth – it is difficult to read African politics through the lens of this younger generation. This crop of elites was moulded in a social system that elevates a certain group of people to the status of “intellectuals”, the only ones capable of reading, analyzing, and passing judgment on African issues. They expect the youth to detach from what they call “emotions” and embrace the world of “reason”, where they alone seem to be the current inhabitants.
It is time to invite these African intellectuals to step down from their pedestal of moral superiority. This would enable them to get a feel for, and understand, the yearning of the masses, as the youth now represent 70 per cent of the African population. They should reintegrate themselves into their world and learn to understand current realities.
First, let us deconstruct the myth that African youths are against democracy and that their support for military juntas stems from contempt for democracy and the rule of law. Over the past two decades research has established that authoritarianism is increasing across Africa while personal freedoms appear to be diminishing. The term “democracy” has been co-opted by political gangsters who have come to power through corruption, manipulation of institutions, voter suppression, ballot stuffing, and violence against the people.
Multiple elections in Africa – including most recently in Sierra Leone – have been marred by endless contestations, arbitrary arrests, repression, and political show trials. If only the fraudulently-elected leaders projected a semblance of interest in fair governance and the rule of law, the masses might be more forgiving. Unfortunately, these self-centred leaders operate as mafias; they weaken state institutions, consolidating all branches of power into one, thus taking control of the legislative, judicial, and executive bodies and stripping the people of any means of demanding their rights by suppressing basic freedoms. Activists are threatened, arrested, and tortured, while journalists are persecuted and killed, and protests are banned. These attacks on democratic principles and practice take place under the watchful eyes of the “democracy police”, those who consider themselves the intellectuals of society and only speak up when the military forcefully takes over while turning a blind eye to the myriad issues that create a fertile ground for such takeovers in the first place.
The most painful aspect of the political mess we find ourselves in is the rampant pillaging of our countries by the ruling elites and the incompetence characterizing these administrations, where appointments are based on allegiance to the ruling party rather than personal merit. Extreme inequality sets in, with parliamentarians earning on average thirty times more than teachers, and ministers forty times more than doctors. The masses suffer from all forms of deprivation, having to provide essential services such as water, electricity, healthcare, and even security for themselves. In effect, the state – and the leaders who have imposed themselves on us – only remember their citizens when it comes to collecting taxes or coercing votes on election day. The extraction of resources also becomes the modus operandi, where everything is taken from the people and from their land, without them being provided with anything in return.
African masses are deprived of their freedom, dignity, and humanity, with no recourse, they are butchered without mercy when they protest in the streets, and the internet is shut down when they take their protests online. And when the youths decide to leave, they are met with more condemnation, with all doors shut to them, forced to choose between death in the ocean and extreme poverty at home. The African youth are without hope. They are told that they only have one way out: to wait four or five or seven years to vote, praying that the next election will be less fraudulent than the preceding one. It takes a supreme lack of empathy to not understand the anger inside the youth and the relief they feel when soldiers oust their oppressors.
The youth are well aware that the military is not fit to govern. They do not advocate for the continuation of their oppression under a military regime, but they want a way out and an end to the status quo. They want a transition, however short, to put an end to their political, economic, and social imprisonment. They want to regain their freedom and their dignity. And last but not least, they want to send a message that they cannot be suppressed endlessly without repercussions. It would be insensitive for those who have the privilege of security – and probably live far from abject poverty – to expect those who have already lost everything to not take any chance at freedom. The only thing these masses are gambling with at this point is their life. The ruling tyrants have already stolen everything from them: their resources, their rights, and their hope.
It takes a supreme lack of empathy to not understand the anger inside the youth and the relief they feel when soldiers oust their oppressors.
So, the elitist intellectuals should not expect empathy and solidarity from the masses of the continent when these young people face existential issues precipitated by decades of the distortion of democracy and its co-optation by a corrupt elite. What the masses want is to regain their agency, reclaim their power, and affirm their liberty. The African youth want to choose their leaders, hold them accountable, and, above all, they want functioning states where they can live in peace, dignity, and freedom. That is the essence of democracy, and one should not expect them to mourn those who have dehumanised and disenfranchised them.
Today, across Africa, electoral democracy has become a luxurious good that only the rich and powerful can afford to purchase at the expense of the sweat and blood of the poor. It is only when we understand the concerns and motivations of today’s youth – the majority of Africa’s population – that we can then rebuild the democratic foundations that are clearly crumbling in Niger and elsewhere.