Rewriting the rule book

Rewriting the rule book

Omoyele Sowore Photo: ‘Fisayo Soyombo

With every new election cycle, Nigeria is inching closer to producing its own Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau. That hope is fuelled by the confidence with which the younger generation are aspiring to the highest Nigerian office.

A quick run through of the names and ages of candidates currently campaigning to take President Muhammadu Buhari’s job in 2019 is illustrative: Omoyele Sowore (47), Fela Durotoye (46), Thomas-Wilson Ikubese (47), Enyinnaya Nnaemeka Nwosu (40), Ahmed Buhari (40), Charles Udeogaranya (46), Mathias Tsado (41), Eniola Ojajuni (39), Olu James Omosule (48) and Tope Fasua (47).

Although there are some individuals in their fifties or sixties in the mix, the lineup of youth in the presidential race is heartwarming. Nigeria is a country where age — rather than such values as competence, moral presence or strength of character — often forms the main basis of respect. But youth are no longer the leaders of tomorrow; in Nigeria, young people want to be the leaders of today. And it appears they’re well on course.

Taiwo George, the 34-year-old editor of TheCable, Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, puts this down to a “rising youth consciousness to quit the blame game”. Now, young people want to influence political events from the centre. “Nigerian youth are becoming conscious of their role in politics,” He told Africa in Fact. “Unlike before, when they screamed from the sidelines, now they’re actively involved … They’re entering the political arena to contest, and they’re involved in advocacy as well.”

The call for change is gaining momentum. Next year, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest the presidential election. Similarly, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest some of the 36 state governorship seats on offer; 30-year-olds can now be senators, while 25-year-olds can win seats in the Federal House of Representatives and the state houses of assembly.

The age limits for these positions, in the order in which they have been listed, used to be 40, 35, 30, 25, 25. But in 2016, a coalition of youth groups united together to launch the “Not Too Young To Run” campaign — based on the principle that anyone who, at 18, isn’t too young to vote shouldn’t be too young to be voted for. An ambitious, if not audacious, target indeed. Yet considerable progress has been made. With 25-year-olds now eligible to seek legislative office, it is only a matter of time before the 18-year-old target is met as well.

After initial opposition from the upper and lower chambers, the “Not Too Young To Run” Bill was passed in July 2017. Two thirds of the 36 state assemblies followed suit in February this year to satisfy the legal requirements for turning the Bill into law. All that’s left is for Buhari to put pen to paper, and the deal is sealed.

In fact, Nigerian youth have always been involved in politics and elections, says ‘Sola Fagorusi, the programmes and media manager of Onelife Initiative, a non-profit organisation aimed at bringing sustainable social change to young people, but now their methods of involvement and the demography involved are changing.

Until recently, it was uneducated youth, largely living in villages or the outskirts of cities, who featured as party agents or aides to politicians, Fagorusi says. “Today, we are seeing youth engage in peer-to-peer mobilisation for voter registration and collection of the permanent voter card.”

An important part of this has been the capacity offered by the Internet, particularly as regards communication. Fagorusi, 35, attributes the success of recent youth campaigns to “the online amphitheatre, where unending conversations (both deep and shallow) about electoral issues are happening”.

The development has even influenced young people’s participation in primary elections, which were previously little more than “intra-party affairs”, he says. “Young people are also now starting political parties. There is the ANRP, for example – a political party by young people embracing both the elite and deprived. Young people in Nigeria today are doing more than just acting as the electoral umpire’s ad-hoc staff; they are claiming a stake simply by seeking positions within the party structure.”

But some young people are urging caution. The expectations created by the Not Too Young To Run excitement must be tempered with patience, says Rotimi Olawale, executive director of Youthhubafrica, a youth-led, non-profit organisation based in Nigeria that advocates education for girls and engaging in policy debates that impacts young people in Africa. Only when presidential assent is secure, he says, can youth truly start dreaming big politically.

“The most defining agenda for young people in Nigeria today is to crash the party,” Olawale says. “The success of this constitution amendment will see a lot of young people take up the challenge to run for office.” Meanwhile, he says the national, youth-led campaign to encourage young people to register to vote” has been “impressive”, and he is also excited by the rise in the number of “unconventional” political parties, which are providing a platform for youth political expression.

Sowore, one of the youngest 2019 presidential aspirants, recently launched an appeal to raise $2 million “via a clean, transparent and open manner to advance our movement and fund our election into the presidency without the interference of godfathers and godmothers”, as he puts it on his page on the site.

Although he started out as a rank outsider in the race to Aso Rock (Nigeria’s presidential villa), Sowore’s ambition to take on the country’s old guard sits well with the youth. Young people are either promoting his gofundme campaign or contributing to it, and by the time of writing in late May this year, some 575 people had contributed over $49,000. The old guard, meanwhile, sometimes lets its guard slip, and this does not go unnoticed. When Communications Minister Adebayo Shittu recently branded the 47-year-old “inconsequential” on live radio, young people leapt to his defence, saying the minister’s comment was “a slight” on the youth population.

A Sowore victory would have huge implications for the federal ruling class. His campaign machinery is manned entirely by young people, and his election would surely usher in a reign of Nigeria’s youngest-ever ruling elite. But even if he does lose, just the fact of his well-supported campaign will give momentum to efforts by young people to take the central political stage.

Nigerian youth no longer want to be the stooges of politicians or to be cannon fodder for them — useful during election time, but expendable once in power. They do not object to being the governed, but their condition for that is that they too can aspire to, and achieve a role in government. In short, Nigerian youth are discontented with their role as political spectators. Now, they aim to be direct players in the political space.

degree in animal science from the University of Ibadan. He was pioneer editor of TheCable (, Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, between April 2014 and January 2017. He is editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). An opinion contributor to Al Jazeera, his writings have been translated into German, French and Arabic. Soyombo has won numerous journalism honours, the latest being the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting (online category) in December 2017.
Forging their own paths

Forging their own paths

Image: Graeme Williams

Is Africa ready for the future? Is the continent ready to tackle the technological disruption and challenges of a rapidly changing world? Importantly, are its young people ready to take up the mantle of change?

Africa’s youth have moved from relative obscurity in political deliberations to centre stage in continental forums and conferences from Cape to Cairo. This new focus stems from concerns about how to educate and employ the millions of young people in Africa and so improve their livelihoods.

There are also concerns around the question of how to counter the potential challenges for social, economic, political and security policy from a large, restive youth population.

Firstly, it is important to note that the gap between modern economies and African markets is growing. Leaders talk about the challenges posed by the fact that some 60% of Africans are under 30 years old, but they seem unable or unwilling to recognise that this has real implications for their countries. This is despite the constant reminders from scenario planners, technology buffs and consultants. A new world is upon us – one in which traditional sectors and jobs are being disrupted by technology and replaced with artificial intelligence and robots.

This trend has been given a name – the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The term was coined by the World Economic Forum to describe a digital age in which technology is disrupting existing business models and sectors and, importantly, jobs. Meanwhile, much of Africa is viewed as being stuck in the Second Industrial Revolution, with governments prioritising industrial programmes and skills that will be disrupted, and even marginalised, by current technology trends, which present both huge opportunities for tech-savvy young entrepreneurs but also major challenges for employment for millions of unskilled young Africans.

There are pockets of Africa – sectors rather than countries – that have leapfrogged into the Third Industrial Revolution, in which the technologies of ICT and electronics are the drivers of change. Africa’s underdevelopment has provided a clean slate for technological innovation that bypasses traditional models to address longstanding challenges.

Energy is an example. With millions of Africans still far from a power grid, renewable energy innovations are reaching across the continent. An initiative in Kenya, M-Kopa Solar, has in five years connected more than half a million homes to its pay-as-you-go solar solution for rural and low-income households. It is now rolling out in Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana. In another example, the mobile revolution has highlighted the enormous appetite for technology and entrepreneurship among Africans, particularly the youth. Africa has seen the highest mobile phone growth of any region over the past decade.

According to the Mobile Ecosystem Forum, the continent has a subscription penetration (percentage of the population) of 82%, which is expected to reach 100% by 2021. Much of this growth will come from the new generation. This is also increasingly being shown in the banking sector. According to the UN, 12% of adults in Africa have mobile bank accounts as compared with 2% of adults globally.

In Kenya it is as high as 58%. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has coined the phrase “new-collar jobs” to describe work that doesn’t require a traditional degree but does require high skills levels in areas such as cyber security, data science, artificial intelligence and the cloud. This describes workers who sit somewhere between “blue collar” and “white collar” on the traditional work spectrum. She first raised it in 2016 in an open letter to then president elect Donald Trump, detailing ways she felt Americans could benefit from advances in technology.

The private sector, recognising the potential opportunity – and challenges – of Africa’s demographic, has stepped in, focusing efforts on these “new-collar” jobs. For example, IBM has, with the UN, launched a $70 million initiative to create jobs in Africa, focused on digital literacy. It aims to train 25 million youths over five years, kicking off in five countries – South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa initiative offers skills training and linked job opportunities for Africa’s young people. More than 150,000 youths have already been trained and 455,000 connected to jobs. There are many other international initiatives of this kind. But these efforts are not limited to international interventions.

Africans are also coming to the party. A leading player is Nigerian philanthropist and businessman Tony Elumelu, chairman of Heirs Holdings. His foundation is spending $100 million on entrepreneur training programmes in Africa. Africa’s youths are its future and their fate cannot be left to chance, he told Africa in Fact. “Africa’s development will have at its heart young African innovators and their transformative ideas. Only they will create the millions of jobs Africa needs.”

The African Development Bank Group (AfDB) has launched a “Jobs for Youths” strategy to create 25 million jobs over 10 years. African millionaire Ashish Thakkar, chairman of pan-African investment firm Mara Group, is a member of the AfDB’s Presidential Youth Advisory Group. He says it is vital that Africans acquire the right skills sets for the future.

“With artificial intelligence and everything else that is happening, the reality is that what we are training our youth for today may not be relevant in 10 years’ time,” he told Africa in Fact. “So it is important to see how we can create systems and thinking to get them to learn, unlearn, and relearn when necessary.” Similar initiatives are gaining traction. Technology hubs are driving innovation across the continent. According to the mobile operators’ association, GSMA, there were 314 technology hubs in 93 cities across 42 countries in 2017, and the number is growing.

Non-governmental organisations are playing a key role in delivering innovation to communities around Africa. But the initiatives currently in play are a drop in the ocean compared to the need. Meanwhile, the continent’s leaders, who might have been expected to take a lead in such an important matter, appear to be stuck in redundant ways of thinking that have not delivered development over the past few decades, let alone knowledge-based economies.

The continent’s developmental challenges are still enormous. Out of the 37 countries listed in the 2017 Low Human Development category of the UN Human Development Index, some 31 are African. This is what young people stand to inherit. The popular view that rising labour costs in China will lead to millions of low-skilled jobs relocating to Africa is optimistic, given the automation of work globally and the lack of skills and low productivity in Africa.

There is a concern that digital transformation could increase Africa’s income gap even further, given the challenges in education. The new skills and competencies required by 4IR are not being taught in schools in Africa, where thousands of children don’t have classrooms, let alone computers. Connectivity in Africa still trails behind at 21% as compared to the global average of over 40%, and more than 70% in the European Union, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

Rather than stimulating entrepreneurship, policymakers are regulating it. A general lack around the continent of enabling policy in this regard is acting as a handbrake on progress. Governments in Africa don’t understand the integral role that technology can play in an economy, according to Ghanaian Bright Simons, president of digital company mPedigree Network. They treat it as a marginal factor, and fail to see that it is a transformational sector that, properly stimulated, could increase economic inclusion and growth.

Africa is not short of young entrepreneurs with good ideas, ambition, energy and talent, which can be harnessed to drive more inclusive growth. Young people are also impatient for change. As their access to information increases, they will gain more power to hold their leaders accountable, and to push for a new political agenda that will allow them input into the processes and policies that shape their lives.

But digitally savvy young Africans across the continent are mostly being left to forge their own paths through a rapidly changing world. If Africa is to realise and build on the opportunities presented by 4IR, a radical mindset change at the policy level will be necessary. Policymakers should be seeking every opportunity to support, and not hinder, the modernisation of African economies. Young people are increasingly recognising that this is the only way to build a decent future for themselves, and one day, their children.

DIANNA GAMES is the chief executive of business consultancy Africa @ Work and a regular columnist on African issues for Business Day newspaper. She is and a regular columnist on African issues for Business Day newspaper. She is a fellow of the GIBS Centre for Dynamic Markets in Johannesburg.
Act now or risk losing an entire generation

Act now or risk losing an entire generation

Children from Kuma Garadayat (North Darfur) Image: UNAMID

Africa’s youth employment and education trends are worrying. Over the next few years much of the continent will be affected by two trends, namely continued high levels of unemployment and continuing high fertility rates.

The latter, in particular, will lead to bulging youth populations in many countries around the continent. If not addressed adequately and quickly through appropriate policy actions the result will be disharmony – and possibly much worse – as well as even higher unemployment in the future. Africa’s working age population (those 15 years and older) will pass one billion people by 2030, according to United Nations (UN) statistics. That will be a 45% increase from 2105.

Of the 73 million jobs created in Africa between 2000 and 2008, only 22% were filled by youth, according to statistics from the International Labor Organization (ILO). The rate of unemployment among youth is currently estimated to be double that of adults in most African countries, according to the same study. The African Development Bank said in a 2015 report that creating new jobs and simply lowering the youth unemployment rate to that of adults would lead to an increase in Africa’s GDP of between 10% and 20%.

While the bank did not indicate a time frame, the increase would be significant even over a period of decades. More worrying, though, is that the structural composition of Africa’s labour force is not expected to shift significantly during this period. The African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), an economic policy institute based in Accra, Ghana, has argued that the lack of structural transformation of Africa’s economies could dampen opportunities for long-term economic growth.

A similar scenario may play out for employment in Africa. Unless structural changes emerge that are supported by robust and well-articulated policies, the labour force will neither respond to opportunities created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR; see the articles by ‘Gbenga Sesan, Dianna Games and Toby Shapshak in this edition of Africa in Fact), nor meet the needs of Africa’s youthful population.

For example, according to 2017 ILOSTAT data, Africa’s labour sector share in agriculture will decline from 67.5% in 2015 to 61.5% in 2030 for low-income countries. As another example, Africa’s labour sector share in trade and transport will decline from 25.1% in 2015 to 24.3% in 2030 for upper middle-income countries.

These incremental shifts will not allow Africa to capitalise on global trends in employment, which are now mainly driven by technology and innovation. Likewise, 2017 ILOSTAT survey data covering 25 African countries shows a very low labour sector share in manufacturing – only between 6% and 8% of total employment. That share is expected to decrease between 2015 and 2030, just when manufacturing could be driving employment generation.

The troubling labour trends are coupled with poor education outcomes. Last year, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) calculated that Africa needs to enroll 33 million young people in vocational and training education in secondary schools, whereas there were only four million enrolled in 2012. According to the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realise Education’s Promise, fewer than 7% of children in primary school are basically proficient in reading, while just 14% are basically proficient in mathematics.

The report notes a wide range of challenges, including children often suffering from illness or income deprivation. At the same time, teacher absenteeism is a significant challenge, as is the basic education of teachers in many countries. While many African countries certainly do face policy challenges when it comes to youth employment and skills agendas, it is also true that the types of jobs likely to be created over the coming decades may offer significant potential upsides.

For example, according to a working paper by James Bessen in 2016, it is estimated that computer use is associated with a 0.3% rise in overall national employment. Likewise, productivity growth (for example, from enhanced technology and innovation) in an industry tends to generate positive employment spillovers elsewhere in the economy, according to a 2017 study by David Autor and Anna Salomons. A one-unit increase in new automation leads to a 0.2% increase in the employment to population ratio, according to a 2017 article by Katja Mann and Lukas Putterman.

The new economy is also expanding opportunities. For example, online job sites and social networking platforms allow for a more diversified labour market participation, particularly for young women and disadvantaged groups. New jobs are being created that did not exist before, and market-entry space has been created for entrepreneurs – particularly regarding social enterprises. While there are concerns about job losses associated with automation and technology, we feel that the pace of change will likely allow Africa to see a net positive benefit over the medium term.

However, even with strong policy design and implementation, not all sectors will contribute equally to employment growth in Africa. It is likely that a few particular sectors will be the primary economic drivers. The ICT service sector has strong prospects in business process outsourcing (BPO), which is likely to bring more people into the labour markets, including women. Some studies indicate that one in four jobs in the United States have been – or could be – offshore in the future, according to a 2013 working paper by Alan S. Blinder and Alan B. Krueger. Interesting business models for medical services are developing that are increasingly taken offshore to countries such as India, China, the Philippines and South Africa. In India, the BPO industry already employs more than three million workers, 30% of who are women. In the Philippines, BPO employs 2.3% of all workers, according to the World Development Report 2016, Digital Dividends.

A delegate at the youth-led meeting entitled “1 + 4 = 16 Targeting Poverty and Education for Peace” at the UN, 2016 Photo: DPI/UN

Agriculture also has significant potential to provide additional and higher-income jobs for the future, mostly due to high-end technology. Drones are being used for remote sensing, farm equipment is increasingly robotised to improve precision agriculture, and “telephone farming” is enabling city dwellers to farm remotely with access to irrigation, lighting, heating and weather-station data with smart-phone technology. According to a recent report by ACET, Agriculture Powering Africa’s Economic Transition, employment in Africa could be significantly boosted by the development of agricultural value chains, including agro-processing, input manufacturing and agricultural services. These sub-industries could open a host of productive employment opportunities in non-farm sectors.

Many of these jobs are likely to be attractive to Africa’s expanding population of educated youth, most of who do not think of “farming” as an appealing vocation. In the long term, bringing more young people into farming is essential for replacing the ageing traditional smallholders who are now the backbone of African agriculture.

While, according to the ILOSTAT data, the share of jobs in manufacturing will decline over the coming period, it will continue to be an important sector for employment. A few countries, such as Ethiopia, are starting to capitalise on the emerging opportunities in this sector. African manufacturing has traditionally lacked automation to boost productivity and competitiveness. Automation, of course, requires upskilling and improved infrastructure. The existing high-tech infrastructure could be adapted; indeed, in many cases it is only being expanded now, for example, with cellular networks and industrial electricity grids.

Moreover, a 2018 study from Karishma Banga and Dirk Willem te Velde of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) indicates that African countries have a window of opportunity to move into somewhat less automated sectors, where technology installation has been slower. Automation varies greatly across sectors, with automotive and electronics sectors at the forefront while food processing and furniture production lag behind. This provides an opportunity for local and regional focused manufacturing.

Even as these industries become susceptible to automation, the 2018 report by ODI points out that Africa’s lower labour costs mean that African countries will have about a decade or longer to adjust before cost of robots fall enough to replace human labour.

This window should be used to build manufacturing capabilities and a continued focus on improvements in basic infrastructure such as a reliable power supply, telecommunications and roads – combined with a targeted approach to building industrial capabilities.

There are multiple approaches whereby African governments can immediately address the medium-term demand for skills for youth. Capitalising on the so-called “demographic dividend” represented by the high proportion of young people will not be automatic; it will require effective and ongoing policy implementation.

Firstly, Africa’s economies must create sufficient productive jobs, which requires strong and sustained growth. The Brookings Institution (2018) estimates the required economic growth to be in a range of between eight and nine percent. Industrial policies should favour labour intensity. Sectors such as agriculture and agro-processing, infrastructure, wholesale and retail trade, and tourism are particularly good candidates relative to their current growth rates and their economy-wide (infrastructure) or multi-sector (tourism) multiplier effects.

The transformation of the continent’s economies is crucial to ramp up growth. Clearly, governments will need to engage industry much more deeply and constructively than they have in the past. From a demand-side perspective, industry will need to be involved in improving skills quality and in enhancing access to technical and vocational training.

This can be facilitated by establishing skills councils and by industry participation in the quality assurance and assessment of learners. Government/industry collaboration on staff and student internships and training partnerships would be a critical element in this, based on national, regional and global best practice.

Likewise, governments will need to rapidly address regulatory and investment climates to expand job creation for youth. While making it easier to do business and improving the investment climate are important to industrial policy in particular, they are crucial regarding employment more generally.

This is because technologies are new and regulatory authorities, which tend to be conservative and understaffed, may not be nimble enough to develop needed regulations or may create stifling regulation based on poor understanding or unwarranted fears. Kenya, for example, has been at the forefront in creating a regulatory framework conducive to mobile banking, but fairly erratic in the development of drone regulations.

At first, the country banned drones but then it introduced punitive drone regulations, charging exorbitant fees for their use. A recent ACET survey indicates a low level of awareness among policymakers of new technologies and their relevance to creating youth employment opportunities.

However, some governments are taking experimental approaches to help increase understanding. For example, South Africa’s Reserve Bank will allow experimentation with block-chain technology – a secure transaction ledger database that is shared by all parties participating in an established, distributed network of computers – in the banking sector because this will allow the institution to better understand them and thus to devise an appropriate regulatory regime.

Governments will not only need to expand and deepen skills development but focus on quality of skills for youth. Investment is needed in modern competencies for teachers and instructors, as well as updated teaching, learning and training facilities. While there has been some movement toward ICT-supported learning, it is not widely adopted or supported in most African nations. Enhanced cellular and broadband capabilities will enable African countries to leverage existing learning platforms.

But, of course, this will require adequate financing, which cannot be provided only by the public sector. African governments will need to establish dialogues and partnerships with the private sector to jointly finance quality skills development.

Finally, it will be necessary to improve access to – and perceptions of – technical and vocational education training (TVET) for and among Africa’s youth. Currently, perceptions of TVET among African policymakers and youth alike are that it is less prestigious, and less likely to result in improved socio-economic status, than tertiary academic education. TVET is therefore poorly funded, while facilities often do not cater to girls or people with disabilities. Governments need to invest more in understanding the demand for technical skills, and to make formal, concerted efforts to match skills to demand.

Presently, the opportunities are greater than the challenges as regards ensuring that Africa’s young people are provided with the skills that enable them to get jobs and build livelihoods. But all stakeholders will need to work together – and work quickly. In most instances, the required policy actions can be derived from global and regional best practices. That is not to say they are easy; there will be winners and losers. But it is imperative to manage the wins and losses now if we are to avoid losing an entire generation of young people, who are the future of Africa.

ROB FLOYD is an international development executive with broad experience in strategy design and implementation, programme management, and partnerships. Before joining the African Center for Economic Transformation in Washington DC, he worked for more than 20 years at the World Bank Group across multiple regions, sectors and in institutional leadership positions. At ACET, he contributes to a range of strategic initiatives including raising the profile of ACET outside of Africa, fundraising, partnerships and the forward-looking business model.
JULIUS GATUNE is a senior policy advisor at the African Center for Economic Transformation in Washington DC. He has extensive experience in long-term planning. Prior to joining ACET, he worked at McKinsey & Co. Julius has a PhD in policy analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School and a Masters in computer science from the University of Cambridge.
From unexpressed anger to participation

From unexpressed anger to participation

The year was 2002 and the location a bank’s training facility in a quiet area of Nairobi. They all came from different countries but had one thing in common: every young woman and man in the room had been able to discuss their ideas concerning youth participation in governance during the previous few weeks. The medium that had enabled this was the Internet.

That meeting of the African Youth Parliament, in October and November of that year, addressed many issues relating to the concerns and interest of Africa’s young people. One aspect of it, however, was hardly noticed at the time. With hindsight, though, it is possible to see the novel role that technology had played in making the meeting happen.

Moreover, it helped the delegates to keep in touch, and has continued to do so as they make an impact in their various countries. Internet access – at least the “plug-and-pray” variety that you had to be patient with back then – was spreading across Africa at the turn of the 21st century. Meanwhile, young Africans wanted to contribute to the democratic politics that was defining their future. The Internet was a useful tool that served that growing need.

Meetings at which young Africans expressed anger at the lack of opportunities to participate in politics were not new, but the chance to connect with people who were not in the same physical space was. It was exciting because the more the conversation progressed, the more it was clear that we shared similar experiences and expectations, and also that we faced the same lack of opportunities.

What had started, often on campuses, as an introduction to a new way of communication was soon woven into the fabric of our burgeoning social networks. Social mobility, which had previously been so glacial, began to unfreeze in Africa between 2007 and 2009, when social networks began to connect people who faced similar issues across the continent. For example, many Nigerians were dissatisfied with formal politics after the flawed 2007 elections, which came to be nicknamed iwuruwuru – a neologism that played on the name of the chairman of the Nigerian Independent National Electoral Commission at the time, Maurice Iwu, and the Yoruba word for “cunning”.

By 2009 that anger was finding expression on social media platforms, including BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Facebook and others. Young people in particular adopted these tools with enthusiasm. Protests in 2010, triggered by the prolonged absence of a president seeking healthcare overseas and rumours of a power hijack by a “cabal”, saw yet more activism and exchange of information through social media. The 2011 elections saw citizens using tools like ReVoDa, an election-monitoring mobile app, to take action.

Though labeled clicktivists at the time, it was clear that such tools allowed the safety of near anonymity while at the same time providing outlets for angry expression and enabling people to organise action. This is how the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests happened, building on the opportunism of opposition parties and a tired labour movement that needed but lacked the capacity for mass action. Social media have proved useful in connecting angry citizens and amplifying issues through these phases of Nigeria’s democratic experience. In 2013, Nigerian citizens began to stand up for each other in a different way, through various “#SaveCitizen” efforts that saw young people raising funds online for people in health emergency situations, helping to save lives.

When insurrectionist movement Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from Chibok in 2014, #BringBackOurGirls tweets soon began showing up, because people were familiar with the social medium. Government had failed to act and it looked like it would also try to cover up the abduction, but social media gave citizens a way around their apparent helplessness in the face of terrorism and government inaction, and also enabled concrete action.

This trend explains why, in 2015, social media played a major role in the elections that led to the first incumbent president’s loss in Nigeria’s democratic history. Throughout 2016 and 2017, social media continued to play an important role in citizen activism, with public officials being called out and concrete reforms demanded. The new social media involved elements of citizen solidarity and citizen activism – and they enabled calls for measurable action. Similar campaigns have sprung up elsewhere in Africa. In Kenya, for example, the #WhatIsARoad campaign calls attention to roads that need repairs. From Algeria (#Feb12) to Zimbabwe (#ThisFlag), social media campaigns have taken protest to the streets and forced governments to pay (at least some) attention to social ills.

This year, much is happening in the democratic spaces created or enabled by social media. Once confined to the sidelines, young people are participating and demanding more engagement, especially with the aid of technology platforms and tools.

In Nigeria, a group drafted a legislative Bill, nicknamed the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill, to demand reduced qualification ages for citizens wishing to run for political office, including the office of the president. Another youth-led group drafted a Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that has now been passed by both chambers of parliament and now only needs presidential assent. A mobile application that followed a typical path from development to implementation has been used to monitor elections in Nigeria since 2011.

On September 28, 2010, I wrote to 14 young people who I knew had a flair for technology, arguing that we needed “a tech meet up to brainstorm towards 2011”, as I put it to them. I urged them to consider working to help create social media formats that would have popular appeal, and consider wider uses for “tech”. About three weeks later, the group of young people gathered in a function room at the University of Lagos’ Centre for Information Technology and Systems to brainstorm. From that meeting, the idea of a #NigeriaDecides project was born. Working with another youth-led group, Enough is Enough Nigeria – which had emerged from a similar youth, governance and technology intersection – we set up in a conference room at Beni Apartments in Victoria Island, Lagos to develop a new app.

The final product, ReVoDa – a play on “Registered Voter Database” – offered a crowd-sourced opportunity to monitor and report on elections without having to go through the bureaucracy of registration with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, and it was used by citizens all around the country to monitor the 2011 elections. Technology is opening doors for a new generation of democratic actors because it gives them access to tools that allow people to mobilise effectively. From that beginning in 2011 we have broadened our horizons and we are looking beyond mobilising around occasional elections. A new generation of young people is lighting candles against the darkness of apathy.

New initiatives in social enterprise, business and civic education, among other areas, are coming to the fore, enabled by technology. These initiatives are helping to force governments to get involved in conversations about standards of governance and their implementation. Even the daily actions of government can now be subjected to scrutiny and immediate feedback through technology platforms. Social media are redefining citizen-government interaction.

In April, for instance, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, answering questions at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London, claimed that many young Nigerians wanted “everything for free” because Nigeria is seen as an oil-rich nation.

The same day he got immediate, critical feedback from young Nigerians through a new hashtag, #LazyNigerianYouths, and the presidency had to release a statement “clarifying” the president’s statements. Internet technology is providing opportunities for citizen engagement with and critique of governments that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago. I have no doubt that it will further shape Africa’s democratic experience over the next few years, and beyond.

‘Gbenga Sesan is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative (, a social enterprise that works on Digital Rights and Digital Inclusion in Africa.