The populist wave that carried Donald Trump to the American presidency is a global phenomenon. Nowhere is this more apparent than in West Africa, over the past two years.
The sense is the same—there is now a deep suspicion of the established economic and political order (you could add to that, media) across much of West Africa, with citizens suspicious of the elite consensus that appears to benefit only a handful at the expense of the many.
The backlash led to a dramatic change of government in Nigeria in 2015, and an equality dramatic change to Ghana in 2016. Like Trump, the presidents who reaped the rewards of an electoral revolt are septuagenarians.
But then there is a crucial distinction. United States’ older voters brought Trump into office. In fact, only 37% of millennials voted for Trump. It was the same in the UK, where older voters delivered the shock of Brexit. But overwhelmingly, in countries with significantly younger demographics, it was West Africa’s youth took Muhammadu Buhari (74) and Nana Akufo-Addo (72) to power in Nigeria and Ghana, respectively.
It’s odd to see so many engaged, empowered and angry youth turn to symbols of the same old order to make change happen in countries desperate for a turn around.
Leading the communication agency that worked on the campaigns of the two winnings candidates however, I know the narrative is not that simple.
There are a few reasons Africa’s youth turns to the old for change to the new.
One is responsibility. Elections are made by comparing the candidates that are available to be voted, rather than to a non-existent ideal. To this extent, many of these young people decided to choose either the best of two available options, or decided anything but the status quo was a much better alternative to skipping the process.
Another reason is pragmatism. Our current political leaders have the massive networks, resources and name recall that win elections. As the next generation has just come into its own over the past half-decade (in Nigeria, real youth participation in elections as a bloc began in 2011) it has only now begun to build the street savvy that can win elections or hijack political systems. Until this happens, there is little choice.
Then there’s a certain cynicism. It has become apparent youth is no guarantee of a change for good. The politics of Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon and neighboring countries are littered with young leaders who campaigned on their youth, only to get into government and line their pockets or war chests as those before them. As one Nigerian politician famously said in a debate in “It’s not their age that is the problem, it’s the age of their ideas.”
Above all else, there’s a ferocious mix of anger and hope. Muhummadu Buhari has not been an impressive president thus far, particularly when it comes to the economy which has tipped into recession. But as always, compared to the alternative at the time, many young Nigerians insist they had no choice. And as all political strategists know, hope is inexhaustible. The idea of movement from what doesn’t already work is a more powerful incentive than the age of candidates.
More than that, the collective capacity of a people to punish a failed government is one that has become a powerful motivation for a frustrated generation—witness the downfall of Jammeh and the animus against the presidents of South Africa and Kenya (opposition candidate, Ralia Odinga is 72).
Since rebuilding our nations will ultimately be a long-term march, then a change in government represents an important step in making revolution happen.
By the way, who was the candidate that the vast majority of America’s millennials voted for instead of the 70-year-old Trump? Ah, yes—the 69-year old Hillary Rodham Clinton.