Niger. Uganda. Mali. Malawi. Zambia. The world’s youngest populations — some of them with a median age of 15 years old — live in Africa.
Consider the implications: In all of these countries, the voting age is 18. Assuming elections are completely devoid of fraud and everyone who can vote turns out at the booths, there is still no democracy — no possible rule by the majority. After all, the majority cannot vote.
Meanwhile, a survey of national leaders paints a contrasting picture. Uganda’s dictator Yoweri Museveni is 72 years old and has been in power for 31 years. (His first attempt to abolish constitutional age limits was thwarted by women last year.) About three-quarters of Uganda’s population has never lived under another head of state. Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta is also 72 years old. Peter Mutharika of Malawi is at least 76 years of age.
In Zimbabwe, the median age is 20 years old, which is 10 years younger than the world’s median age. Its dictator, Robert Mugabe, turned 93 years old on February 21. He is now three or four generations older than the majority of his country.
Why does such a vast canyon of political power exist between Africa’s elderly oligarchy and the youthful majority?
The African Union convened and passed the African Youth Charter in 2006. In it, the heads of state — who were present at the general assembly — defined youth as those between ages 15 and 35. In other words, your youth begins when you are older than almost half of your country’s population; it ends when you already have multiple children old enough to attend school.
This overly inclusive rhetoric of “youth” has been used by political elites to justify the unemployment and exploitation of massive populations across Africa — many of whom are taking on serious life responsibilities like getting married, starting a career and raising children. Yet, according to their governments, they are still youth. Their time has not yet come.
Acceptance of their subjugated position — based solely on the factor of age — has isolated young adults from seizing political control of their countries. They settle for competition in “youth parliaments,” which are devoid of any real power. Regimes arrange youth dialogues, lacking any genuine will to follow through on the results of these dialogues, to further decorate the façade of democracy.
Not all have settled for this co-optation, of course. In 2014, for instance, an uprising in Burkina Faso ousted President Blaise Compaoré, who was born in 1951 and had enjoyed a 27-year presidency.
The young people of Burkina Faso are not alone. Throughout Africa, so-called youth are struggling to take back their destinies from the gerontocracies that stole them.
Get them out before more damage is done
One such young activist, Promise Mkwananzi of Zimbabwe’s #Tajamuka/Sesjikile (meaning “agitated”) movement, is determined to see Mugabe off before he dies. Mkwananzi filed a case against Mugabe, claiming that he is too frail and unfit to rule.
Although the case was dismissed on the basis that Mugabe had not been served at the proper location, Mkwananzi’s spirits are high. “We showed that the president can be challenged and scared him out of his wits,” he said. “The judges had to hide behind technicalities and shied away from the merits of the case. He may have succeeded in destroying my generation’s hope, but he cannot be permitted to destroy my children’s hope too.”
Before the recent overthrow of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who had clung to power for 22 years, an activist told me, “We cannot wait until Jammeh dies because more will be killed, tortured or disappeared. We need to rise up and finish them before they finish us.”
The desperation for immediate change is an obvious concern for anyone trying to survive in a place where dead bodies are common sightings, and not every African has the opportunity to wait. Some dictators are fairly young. Democratic Republic of the Congo President Joseph Kabila is only 45 years old and has been refusing to hold elections due to what he calls a lack of money (in the world’s most mineral-rich country). Meanwhile, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza — who is in the middle of an illegal third term — is 53 years old and still plays soccer.
The point is simple: Dictators are a problem now, and the problems they pose aren’t going anywhere without some sort of change. As Zimbabwean activist Raymond Chibatamoto said, “Whether Mugabe dies in power or not, his leadership years are genocidal. We must avoid a repeat.”
Deaths of presidents entrench African regimes
Such “repeats” — where rule of an authoritarian is inherited by his offspring or inner circle — seem to be the main product of an African dictator’s death. In my home of Uganda, I continually hear people say, “Let’s just wait until the old man dies.” History tells us such surrender holds no promise.
When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi died in 2012, a successor — Hailemariam Desalegn — was appointed. In a single month, Desalegn’s interim position became permanent. Political space in Ethiopia has remained dreadfully thin under the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front’s lengthened administration.
Few counterexamples exist. There is no evidence that the passing of a head of state leads to democratic transition in Africa. In most instances, as in the case of Desalegn’s tenure, political space closes all the more.
Upon reviewing 79 dictators who passed away while in office, researchers Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz found that regimes endured in 92 percent of the cases. They also discovered that coups and revolts upon an autocrat’s death occurred only 6 percent of the time.
As they noted, “Death in office, it turns out, is a remarkably unremarkable event.”
Like father, like son
Family dynasties are making their mark on the continent.
Burials of important African men are often characterized by luxury and pomp. Self-important patriarchs want to ensure their survivors continue their legacy. My wife, a Lango of northern Uganda, often reminds me I shouldn’t take this intergenerational patriarchy lightly. “The success of your children will be attributed to you,” she says. “All blame for their mistakes is attributed to me, their mother.”
This is why Africans are so rarely shocked whenever state leadership is passed on to family members.
In 2013, Uganda’s defected spy chief David Sejusa called for investigations into President Museveni’s alleged plans to kill those who opposed the Muhoozi Project, an alleged scheme to pass on the dictator’s seat to his son Kainerugaba Muhoozi.
A similar plot is unraveling now in Angola. On February 3, dictator Jose Eduardo dos Santos reaffirmed his commitment not to run for another term. During his 38 years in power, he has reneged on such promises numerous times, but on this occasion the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola party has presented defense minister João Lourenço as its new candidate. Behind the curtain is dos Santos’ daughter Isabel, Africa’s richest female billionaire thanks to blood diamonds and the family’s grip on the oil sector. The presiding dictator seems to be moving his chess pieces ahead of a political transition to maintain the family’s grip on Angola’s wealth of natural resources.
Mugabe, two decades older than most of the next oldest African dictators, is an extreme case. As party loyalists commence the infighting, his wife Grace Mugabe, age 51, has elbowed her way into the mix.
“If God decides to take him, then we would rather field him as a corpse,” she said at a rally in eastern Zimbabwe earlier this month, taking her prior commitment to push him around in a wheelchair to the next level. Absurd as it sounds, such rhetoric hints at her own serious bid to remain close to the seat of power.
What about the wayward son?
Today many dictators send their children to study in Europe or North America, where education and exposure to new ideas could conceivably foster a kinder brand of leadership upon succession. Yet, even where there appears to be hope for such an outcome, regime structures have been so viciously consolidated that the next generation oftentimes has difficulty changing the way the game is played.
Africa, of course, has no monopoly on this lesson. When North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died in 2011, some expected the youthful Kim Jong-un — a fan of American basketball and western pop culture — to be a bit less draconian. Nothing significant, however, has changed since the 2011 transition. If anything, he has been more outwardly aggressive than his father.
Meanwhile, in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez in 2000, showed an early promise toward reform. A brief surge in freedom of expression and the release of 600 political prisoners gave Syrians optimism for a new age. However, the old guard, having enjoyed access to the political levers during Hafez’s government, squelched the young leader’s influence. Bashar’s brutality intensified thereafter.
While gerontocracy and nepotism are global phenomena, they are particularly common in Africa. If dictators die today, tomorrow may be no better.
The task in deposing the despots rests in the hands of the hundreds of millions of African youth. Only the rising generations will be able to respond to the challenges ahead for a continent ravaged by centuries of oppression.
African gerontocracy is not the only narrative
To say Africa was inevitably destined for gerontocratic pseudo-democracy with the rise of nation-states would be too simplistic of a narrative. Too many anecdotes run contrary to rule by elderly patriarchs, who often defend their prolonged control of national governments by accusing dissidents of violating patriarchal African culture.
“Ancient Kemet had a system called ‘Maat’ where the masculine and feminine principles were in perfect balance,” said Oyaka Makmot, one of the founders of Uganda’s Popular Resistance Against Life Presidency, which unsuccessfully tried to stop Museveni from abolishing presidential term limits. “The society thrived and built a great civilization that is in many ways unrivaled in it’s creativity and innovation. However, as Kemet went into decline, the masculine began to dominate the feminine.”
Oyaka further noted that most African societies established systems whereby elders were selected on the basis of their integrity and good social standing, but as the masculine began to dominate the feminine, dictatorship became the norm.
“Whereas gerontocracy once tried and tested people of character to be leaders,” Makmot explained, “it is now a system used by corrupt leaders to entrench themselves in power.”
If one former African head-of-state has shown that young people can lead their country forward, it is Thomas Sankara — also known as “Africa’s Che Guevara.” Assuming power in 1983, he urgently vaccinated millions of Burkinabé who had lacked access to proper health care. Corrupt leaders of the previous administration agonized through public, televised trials. Female genital mutilation and forced marriages were banned. Land was redistributed from feudal landlords to peasants, and Burkino Faso — formerly a donor dependent country — attained food sufficiency within four years.
Even in pre-colonial governance structures, according to Makmot, one finds examples of young leaders who diligently served their tribes.
“The Omukama [King] of Bunyoro [modern midwestern Uganda] known as Kabalega was only 17 years old when he became king,” Makmot said. “Some missionaries documented successful caesarian sections performed in the late 19th century [during Kabalega’s tenure].”
Kabalega allied with the nearby Lango tribe and staved off the British for five years, eventually conceding in 1899. (Under the British scorched-earth approach, surgical equipment used by the celebrated surgeons of Bunyoro was looted.) To this day, Kabalega is championed for his leadership, even as other older leaders from neighboring tribes sold themselves out to colonialists.
“Many visionary leaders led their nations between the ages of 17 and 40,” Makmot said. “What I would like the young people of Africa to do is resolve to retire every single leader above the age of 50.”
While such a goal may seem out of reach, it’s not hard to see some momentum in its direction. For starters, Makmot and his comrades are continuing to participate in nonviolent resistance against Museveni. Then there’s the Anglophone Cameroonians, who are rising up against Paul Biya amidst an Internet blackout, and the Sudanese — at home and in the diaspora — who are putting pressure on Omar al-Bashir. Gambians are already enjoying the recent exile of Yahya Jammeh.
Given this picture, perhaps Africa’s young people are becoming the very change they wish to see.
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