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The Year Sub-Saharan Africa's Youth Pushed Back Against the Powers That Be

It's no coincidence that protests this year in the Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and South Africa came at a time when Africa's youth population is booming.
December 30, 2015, 10:00am
Students protested fee increases at their university in Johannesburg, South Africa in October. (Photo by Kim Ludbrook/EPA)

Earlier this year, a brief but unexpected protest movement took hold in the Republic of the Congo against President Denis Sassou Nguesso's attempt to run for a third term in office by holding a constitutional referendum to lift both term and age limits. The protests took on the slogan and the hashtag sassoufit, a play on a French phrase that means "enough."

The spontaneous demonstrations on the streets of Brazzaville likely came as a surprise to the 72-year-old leader, who has ruled the country for all but four years since 1979. The protests turned deadly in October when security forces allegedly fired on the crowds. According to the government, four people were killed. The opposition claims 17 died. Dozens more were arrested and detained, and the government barricaded multiple opposition leaders inside a residence — keeping them on house arrest ahead of the vote.

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Activists and politicians alike said this was the first significant protest movement in the Republic of the Congo since the country's civil war ended in 1997, allowing Sassou Nguesso a second stint in power. He was first elected in 1979, but voted out in 1992. As the demonstrations peaked ahead of the referendum on October 25, Didier Mahouele, a coordinator for the opposition party UPADS, attributed the protests to growing anger among a youth population that was willing to speak up against the status quo.

"The real issue since 1997 is that people have been afraid to speak up because they are afraid of weapons," Mahouele said, referring to the human rights abuses, disappearances, and harsh crackdowns on dissent that the Sassou Nguesso regime has been accused of committing over the years. "Now we have a new generation, one that doesn't accept the situation."

Unlike earlier generations, the protesters were able to communicate through social media and cellphones, although the government quickly cut phone lines and internet access. The young demonstrators claimed they were inspired by recent, largely youth-fueled movements that toppled the ruling regime in Burkina Faso and unsuccessfully pushed back at a third-term power-grab in Burundi.

Related: There's a New Fighting Force in Increasingly Violent Burundi

"I want a Congo free from Denis Sassou Nguesso and his crooked legacy, I hope my country will heal its wounds from three decades of totalitarianism," 30-year-old protest coordinator Andrea Ngombet said at the time. Ngombet is a Congolese citizen who has helped organize the movement from Paris.

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While Sassou Nguesso quickly silenced dissent in Congo and Pierre Nkurunziza held onto the presidency in Burundi, young activists pushed back against leaders and power structures across sub-Saharan Africa this year — particularly in the face of longstanding regimes and high unemployment rates.

In November, authorities arrested young protesters for speaking out against sand mining activities in the Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh has ruled with an iron fist since taking power in 1994. Young critics of Angola's leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos found a cause that attracted international concern this year when rapper Luaty Beirão and 14 others were arrested at a book club meeting that was deemed a threat to the government. In South Africa, the born-free generation — children born in the post-apartheid era — stood together at universities across the country in October to protest against tuition hikes.

These movements come at a time when the youth population in sub-Saharan Africa is booming. In 2015, according to the UN, there were 226 million people aged 15 to 24 living in Africa, accounting for 19 percent of the global youth population. The continent's youth population is also expected to increase 42 percent by 2030.

Watch the VICE News dispatch Election Results and Post-Poll Violence: Burundi on the Brink:

The demographic shift has presented a conundrum that developing countries have faced for years, a phenomenon economists refer to as the "youth bulge." This occurs when a region's youth population — typically under age 35 — grows, and eventually the number of young people at the age of employment hits a critical mass. If jobs are available, a country's economy will grow. If not, the large, unemployed youth population is often seen as a liability in the way of violence or social unrest.

Some experts attribute the Arab Spring protest movements in 2011 to a youth bulge. Before demonstrators took to the streets and toppled regimes, some had already been talking about concerns over the large population of young males in the region. Similarly, for years experts have been discussing the challenges that youth in this part of Africa could provide.

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"A large youth population that is not gainfully employed can also be a liability, further undermining growth prospects," said a 2012 report by the Brookings Institution about sub-Saharan Africa's youth bulge. "Africa's youth present a formidable challenge that requires careful interventions."

In Brazzaville, for example, protest organizer Ngombet said massive youth unemployment was one of the driving factors that pushed protesters into the streets this fall.

Related: The Year Africa's Strongmen Embraced the 'Constitutional Coup'

"Congo is a country of 4 million people, most of them are youth by their age, but already in charge of their family," he said. "The youth unemployment rate and the penetration of internet have a greater role in what happened in Congo."

The unemployment rate in Congo is 16 percent overall, but 25 percent for people under age 30, according to a report from African Economic Outlook. The organization attributes the problem to the poor quality of education and training in the country, along with insufficient job creation and other factors.

Despite the harsh crackdown, Ngombet expects Congolese activists to continue to push back against Sassou Nguesso's rule. In the run-up to presidential elections that are expected to be held in spring of 2016, the young demonstrators plan to continue monitoring government actions. If they detect problems before or at the polls, Ngombet said they will make their voices heard.

"In the case of documented fraud or intimidation, we will go on street to protest and block the country until Sassou Nguesso resigns," he said.

But Ngombet said there is also a broader view beyond the borders of Congo, in both receiving support from other African activists, while also contributing to other global movements as they stand up to regimes around the world.

"Our hope is to have the active fraternity of other youth all over the world to put pressure on global leaders and to help us tire those dictators down. Dictatorship is good for no one," he said. "We hope for a more proactive international community and solidarity from every African son and African friend."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB