Making room for the political outsiders in Africa

Making room for the political outsiders in Africa
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No matter the outcome of Today’s mid-term elections – be it a blue wave, red wave or divided government, a repudiation of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump State Department appointee arrested in connection with Capitol riot Intelligence community investigating links between lawmakers, Capitol rioters Michelle Obama slams 'partisan actions' to 'curtail access to ballot box' MORE, or a reluctant embrace – the elections will make history. Not for the results, but because of the historic number of women running for state offices and very likely for the rise in participation of voters under 30.

A poll, released on October 29 by the Institute of Politics of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, found that 40 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds say they will “definitely vote” in the midterm elections on November 6; since 1986 no more than 21 percent of the 18-29-year-old demographic has ever turned out for midterm elections. For women running for elected office, the numbers are likewise statistically compelling. From 2012 to 2018, the number of women candidates increased by 75 percent for women of color and 36 percent for white women.

This demographic surge in political participation of women and youth is not just an American phenomenon, it is mirrored on the continent of Africa, where these groups – both political outsiders historically – are trying to break through as candidates and as a voting bloc.


In Nigeria, a coalition of young activists, known as the “Not too Young to Run Campaign,” drove through a constitutional amendment reducing age limits of running for elected positions. The bill, which passed in May of 2018, was an important victory in a country where 60 percent of its 190 million people are under the age of 25 and its leaders tend to be well past the age of retirement.

Nigerian presidential candidates can now stand for office at 35 instead of 40, state government aspirants at 30 rather than 35, and 25-year-olds can now enter the House of Representatives, also a five-year age reduction. In the coming February 2019 national elections, many young people will be vying for these positions.

In Ethiopia, newly appointed Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has shaken up the patriarchal system by appointing women to 50 percent of his cabinet, nominating a woman to head the Supreme Court, and last month the national legislature appointed its first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde.

The gains of women in Ethiopia’s new government are part of a trend across the continent where governments are feeling the pressure to up their game in support of gender parity. David Pilling of the Financial Times suggests, “Cynics may see this as a public relations ploy to paper over an authoritarian record . .  but do not underestimate the power of example to galvanize real change.”

These hard-won openings for women and youth in East and West Africa, while notable and disruptive to the established order, can only be consequential if they are accompanied by structural changes that strengthen democratic institutions – an obstacle with which their American political counterparts do not have to contend.

In Nigeria, young, tech-savvy, first time candidates have turned to GoFundMe pages to raise money. But the sums they may accumulate pale in comparison to the deep pockets of traditional candidates who are shored up by political cartels and state patronage operating in the absence of transparency and campaign finance laws.

And while Ethiopia’s 42-year-old prime minister is ushering in much-need transformational change, particularly with the rise of women leaders, it is important to remember that Abiy is an appointed leader. His longevity and the durability of his reforms will depend on the patience of the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front.

In Africa, it’s about more than showing up at the polls or securing a spot on a ballot – it’s about breaking down barriers to entry for political participation, and a recent report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation suggests that the continent is running out of time to create inclusive policies that propel growth. 

For the past eleven years, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, founded and chaired by the entrepreneur and philanthropist who bears its name, has issued an index measuring overall governance performance in four areas: Safety & Rule of Law, Participation & Human Rights, Sustainable Economic Opportunity, and Human Development. It is considered the defining measurement of good governance on the continent.

In this year’s report, the 2018 index showed virtually no progress over the past decade in creating sustainable economic opportunity.  While Africa’s overall GDP has risen nearly 40 percent, its average score for sustainable economic opportunity has increased by less than 1 percent. This means that large GDP growth has not translated into a better quality of life for most Africans.

In a statement accompanying the report, Ibrahim said: “This is a huge missed opportunity. It could become a recipe for disaster. With the expected population growth, Africa stands at a tipping point, and the next years will be crucial.”

Indeed, Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050 to 2.5 billion. 1 in 5 people in the world will be African, and of those, 60 percent will be youth.

Ibrahim admonished Africa’s leaders, stating: “the lost opportunity of the past decade is deeply concerning. Its large and youthful potential workforce could transform the continent for the better, but this opportunity is close to being squandered.”

The Mo Ibrahim Foundation does not tell African leaders what to do. It does not include a list of recommendations with its findings. It merely provides data for others to conclude, exploit, advocate, celebrate, and in some cases, name and shame.

The conclusion I draw is that incremental progress in governance can no longer be abided, and that political systems must be opened to the youth, women and other disrupters with fresh ideas, and not captive to the vested interests.

These candidates are out there, in every country, and every community. Despite all the inherent obstacles of mounting a campaign and the costs to them and their families, they are running.

Unlike legacy politicians, political outsiders do not feel entitled to power or privilege. They feel it is an obligation to make their countries a better place. They are driven by idealism and hope for the next generation.

Young people, women, and others traditionally marginalized from the political process are the face of a new and rising Africa. The continent needs to make room for them, any way it can. This can be done through quotas for parliamentary seats, compelling established political leaders to set aside posts, passing campaign finance laws, demanding direct elections for political party primaries and for local and regional government, establishing networks of support, and strengthening democratic institutions which place rule of law above political power.

As Americans go to the polls in this time of hyper-partisan rancor, we should celebrate first-time political participants, no matter their party, because they make our democracy stronger. And we should remind ourselves how lucky we are to live in a country where our vote counts, and where we have the power to elect and to change our leaders.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and award-winning author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). Follow her on Twitter @rivalevinson