Kemi Osukoya
June 2015

Three years ago (2012), Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn was entrusted with running Ethiopia after President Meles Zanawi’s sudden death. Now that his party has emerged winner of the country’s latest parliamentary election, he is getting a new chance to successfully chart the course of the nation toward a much more positive democratic and socioeconomic legacy.

Although, it wasn’t a political news spoiler as it was very much expected that his party would claim the majority seat in the election, nevertheless it has its critics.

While his party’s performance on the May 24 election cemented his power, there is a rather precarious climate developing in the nation between the government and its 80 million plus civilian population due to discontentment, high unemployment rate and socioeconomic stagnation, which has ignited a power tug-of-war between government and civilians.

This situation applies not only in Ethiopia but across the African continent, including in Burundi where currently the urban youth are demanding for justice and rule of law.

Despite the innumerable difficulties, several African countries have made significant progress toward democratic institutions over the years. Now appears to be a great opportunity for the continent as a whole to reach sustainable democracy and peace.

In 2010, a group of young people in North Africa, fed up with the authoritarian and imperial regimes, turned their protests into what became known in the region as Arab Spring – a cry that was heard across the world and ended many of the imperial regimes in the region. That revolution and the disparate impacts it produced have led to an ideological tug-of-war between true democracy and the need for stability.

With this new found public hunger for political change and social economic development across the continent, there has been a push towards more democratic institutions, better transparency and better governance. Ethiopia and the 49-year-old Mr. Desalegn- a former academia turned politician, through a unique combination of factors are emblematic of a strange domestic dichotomy- an increasingly polarizing political and economy situation across Africa.

On one hand, there’s an increasingly political shift toward democratic institutions. On the other hand, the huge gaps between democratic institutions and socioeconomic developments have led in many cases to feelings of discontentment and disenfranchisement among civilians across the continent. Especially among the youth population whose majority is educated and skilled but highly underemployed.

Over the last five years, a series of protests, riots and civil resistance and uprising events in Burundi, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Nigeria, just to mention a few, have raised questions about the challenges such political instabilities and leadership disparities pose to the continent’s nascent democracies. But these disparities are also a matter of human rights and socio-economic justices.

It’s no secret that leaders across the continent often fail the people they are supposed to serve and that the average age of African Presidents is around 65 years old.

The reasons for the political and socioeconomic polarization/imbalance are varied and complex. One of these has to do with the huge gap between political leaders’ age and the continent’s majority youth population.

Africa has one of the largest youth population. Yet the average African President or leader look more like the continent’s aging infrastructures than the modern technologies in terms of diversity. However, few stopped to ask if the countries and people are truly being well served by electing these leaders or analyze its process to see if anything should be changed to that process.

Don’t get us wrong, we are not saying these aging leaders don’t have anything to contribute to the development of the continent or that they shouldn’t be celebrated. There’s much knowledge that the youth can tap from them. However, in terms of moving the continent forward, other examples from around the world have shown that electing leaders that can identify with the majority of the populations go a long way.

Until recently, women too were unable to break into the political brotherhood. Even now, only a handful holds political office.

Ethiopia, like many other African countries have clung on to a leadership process that is archaic. In theory, it’s gives a level play field that gives all candidates an equal chance. However, in practice, it’s never as keeled as it is meant to be. Mr. Desalegn’s Ethiopia’s People Revolutionary Democratic Front [EPRDF] party is the most popular party in the country and has been in power since 2002- that’s more than a three-term (four year each) presidency if we are talking about presidential term limit in Africa.

Though it could be argued that this recent election was his formal ascension to the post and its party regime has been lauded for its policy and economic performance that’s based on agric-led economic transformation, and its peacekeeping intervention in the region. Critics, however, have accused the government of human rights abuse, stifling free speech and any dissident voices of its government.

This situation, like many other countries in Africa, has left many on the continent suspicious of leaders and regime whose dominance, historic imperialism-style regime, and grip on power have left much sour tastes among population.

It’s no coincidence then that there are series of uprising across the continent. While on the surface it might seem like the civil disobedience and uprising launched against the governments are nothing more than a cry, it’s very much due to angst over violations.

Without bridging these leadership, political and socioeconomic gaps, any surviving chance for a true democratic institutions on the continent become ephemeral and subject to instability.

The truth, the tense political/social situations in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Rwanda, Burundi, and other African countries could very well offer case studies of pluses and minuses of the nascent democratic institutions in Africa and raises the question as to how to better mitigate that democratic transition effectively to benefit majority rather minority.

The predominant assumption about the youth/young adult on the continent is that they lack true maturity to be an effective leader. However, a closer examination of this assumption tells us it’s false.

The benefits of offering official recognition to youth/ young adults through leadership roles in their communities are obvious. Chief among these is a sense of recovered capability to control one’s own destiny. In this regard, it will not only help strengthen communities but also restore the lost relationship between the government and the civilians.

While demographic representation would not necessarily guarantee stability, if it is guided and inspired by criteria of integrity and independence, it can produce an effective democratic process that has the potential to nurture a more inclusive democracy by reflecting and bringing the diverse political, gender, culture and religious identities represented in that society to the public consciousness so a peaceful coexistence among all can flourish.

This would be a solid base upon which the continent’s nascent democracy can lift off toward the future.

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