Many scholarly works are highlighting the potential development, peace, and security threats posed by Africa’s burgeoning youth bulge. These have argued that idle and frustrated youths are easily radicalized and recruited into militant, terrorist, vigilante, and extremist groups. This is salient across many African countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, and Mozambique, among other countries where young people have been recruited by extremist groups such as Boko Haram and al Shabab, which have led to protracted instability and violence in these countries. Another school of thought argues that this massive youth population is a potential demographic dividend. However, they assert that for this to be realized, Africa’s huge youthful population requires more education, jobs, and other livelihood and economic opportunities which will make young people a dynamic force in Africa’s socioeconomic and political development.

In light of the foregoing, young people have been central to US-Africa diplomatic relations. Key US interventions have included investments in various sectors including education, health, and leadership, and promoting youth voices in the decision-making process. Through mentorship and training under programs such as the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), the US seeks to strengthen and instill democratic principles and values in African youth leaders. Similarly, the University Partnerships Initiative seeks to promote collaboration between the US and African universities through exchange programs and scholarships. However, there is a consensus that, over the last few years, the US has continued to fall behind in its relations with Africa due to various reasons, including China’s extensive inroads into and growing development engagements with Africa.

In our engagements during the policy dialogue on “Peace, Trade and Youth: Investing in US-Africa Relations” held on December 12, 2022, in Washington, DC, questions emerged on the ways in which African youth movements have continually held leaders accountable to their pre-electoral promises. Discussions showed that young people are organizing along common interests and establishing social movements which enable them to speak with one voice and collectively demand transparent and accountable leadership. From the #FeesMustFall and #EndSARS to #ThisFlag in South Africa, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe respectively, young people have demonstrated their agency and capacity to shape policy changes in their respective countries.

Youth-led social movements in many African countries have since the much-heralded Arab Spring continued to play an important role in demanding democracy and holding governments accountable. Many of these social movements make use of social media platforms to mobilize the people for protests and other forms of active citizenship aimed toward consolidating democratic governance, peace, and security. However, some authoritarian leaders in Africa and beyond have devised ways of suppressing people’s online democracy and internet freedom. This tends to constrain people’s access to the internet and social media platforms. For instance, internet shutdowns/blackouts have become more frequent and have promoted digital authoritarianism while simultaneously limiting young people’s rights to freedom of expression and access to information. For example, in Cameroon, the internet was switched off for almost 40 weeks following violent protests. In countries such as Uganda, the government imposed a social media tax which increased the costs of using social media. Similarly, in Zimbabwe, after several protests in 2016, the government ordered the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Agency of Zimbabwe (PORTRAZ) to force telecommunication companies to increase the price of data. Across the African continent, scholars assert that between 2016 to 2018 there were about 140 internet shutdowns, 63 social media blackouts, and 237 slowed internet speeds. All this coalesced into the suppression of dissenting voices.

Apart from using social media, young people in Africa have also used popular arts, including dance and music to promote ‘grassroots peacebuilding’ in various countries. My APN-funded research has shown how some young people in a poor and violence-ridden neighborhood of Mbare have used popular music to promote peace. Indeed, through music, young people have emerged and served as critical voices for dialogue, peace, and reconciliation within the community. Similarly, engagements in popular arts have provided an alternative livelihood portfolio while stopping young people from joining violent networks mobilized for political violence by politicians in the community. As such, these and other sectors present potentially rewarding opportunities for strengthening US-Africa cooperation for economic growth, development, peace, and security.

In addition, one of the key themes that emerged during the policy dialogue was the issue of empowering the youth so that they can become leaders, not only in the future but also in the present. US-Africa cooperation will benefit from the empowerment of African youth. Such cooperation will take many forms, including political representation, economic participation, and governance. Such empowerment initiatives will significantly strengthen youth voices, representation, and participation in leadership and decision-making structures in some African countries. Already some modest progress can be seen in relation to the introduction of the youth quota in parliaments and other spaces. The US should consolidate youth engagement on many fronts, not just in relation to empowering youth as a strategy for advancing good governance and accountable leadership. An important component of this project will include support for economic projects and new technologies that meaningfully mainstream youth enterprise in ways that leverage Africa’s place in international trade on more advantageous terms.