Friday, 14 May, 2021

Africa: The Restrictive Box of Identity Politics

Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.

As a 24-year-old Ethiopian journalist and communications expert, in this short blog post I will attempt to share my experiences working with the African Union and what I’ve learnt in relation to identity politics.

As one of the leaders of Young African Think’rs initiative (YAT), I have had the pleasure of working closely with the African Union for over three years, especially the youth division, to organize the Young African Thinkers Conventions. To date, we have organized 3 continental conventions in Addis Ababa, in partnership with the AUC and two national conventions in Nairobi, with the UN Habitat. Throughout the years, we brought together hundreds of bright minds from across the continent and diaspora to brainstorm on practical solutions that we face in Africa.

Youth division as youth participation

As a youth-led and youth-convening initiative, YAT was directed to work with the AUC’s Youth Division. While one can appreciate that such a division exists to solely focus on youth participation, the downfalls don’t take long to show face.

On the African Union’s website, it states that the Youth Division’s ‘responsibility is for Africa’s Youth Agenda at the African Union Commission’. The list of specific responsibilities is found here.

For us at YAT, our focus was Agenda 2063; popularizing it and using that vision to draw in young people to a united continental-cause. We wanted to work directly with the office that works on Agenda 2063, as we wanted to better align with their priorities and coordinate our efforts. In addition, the Youth Division is a small office with a few staff members and a few youth volunteers. They are often stretched thin facilitating several youth-related events and initiatives of their own, and partners – in Addis Ababa and across the continent.

We were told by an official that as long as we are a ‘youth movement’ (as denoted by the word young in our name), that we had to work with the youth division and that they could then link us to the office of Agenda 2063 through internal procedures.

However, the fact that we were a youth movement didn’t only limit us to which department we can directly interact with, it often also dictates which issues we’re expected to address. Since we were working with the youth division, we became tied to the mandate of that office. It didn’t matter that we were gathering to discuss continental matters, we were expected to discuss youth-related issues.

In 2017, preparing for our annual continental convention, we decided to gear it towards the Reform Process led by president Kagame. The theme the AU was championing that year was ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in the Youth‘. As the ownership of the AU by young people is key in realizing the aspirations in Agenda 2063, we penned a concept note for our convention that did just that. Our focus would be the reform process, and young people from across the continent would gather to give their input into this crucial and important discussion. The response we received from the AUC surprised us.

‘Youth – stay in your lane’

We first presented the concept note to the Youth Division, over which they were divided. Some of them noted that the was not in the scope of their mandate and that we should change it. For other members, while they were very aware of the disapproval that would follow from their superiors, they were excited for it. They mentioned that it would be a chance to include young people in real and important discussions. Additionally, it would give the Reform Process Committee meaningful recommendations and input from young people. The meeting however was inconclusive.

A few days later I was invited to be part of a filming at the AUC Chairperson’s residence; a short video that would show the chairperson interacting with young people, during a Q&A session. It was a member of the Youth Division who was excited about our possible undertaking that included me as one of the eight young people who would go. I was the only one present at this occasion who didn’t work at the AU – as the others were all from the AU Youth Volunteers Corps program. This was around the same time when the new leadership of the AU had taken office.

At the said event, I was ready with my questions, about the Reform Process and if youth inputs were welcome. Right before the filming, the Chairperson’s spokesperson came and asked each of us to disclose the questions we had prepared for him. She went one by one approving which question could be asked, and which couldn’t. When it was my turn to disclose, I shared that I wanted to ask about the Reform process and what role the youth can play. She said, “Ummm, no. Don’t ask that.” Taken aback, I asked, “Why not?”, she responded, “ask something that concerns youth.”

While the fact that I was a young person opened the door for me to be included in that face-to-face with the chairperson, it also became the same reason I was excluded from an important conversation I wanted to be a part of. Youth participation was welcome, and even encouraged, as long as it dwelled on ‘youth-related’ matters.

Later during conversations with the Chairperson, the Reform Process came up and he expressed that youth inputs would be highly valuable. This is also in line with what is mentioned in Agenda 2063, in aspiration 6, point #58: ‘The creativity, energy and innovation of Africa’s youth shall be the driving force behind the continent’s political, social, cultural and economic transformation.’ However, this view isn’t share by all officials in the commission.

A week or so later, we had a meeting with the outgoing commissioner of the Human Resource and Science and Technology (HRST) Department of the AUC. As the Youth Division is under this department, he would have the say on whether or not our concept note would be acceptable. He found it so amusing that a group of young people believed they could give valuable input into such an important matter that he said, “Who do you think you are? Do you think YOU, young people, could advise ministers? You? Advising ministers?” He was beginning to chuckle.

I was dumbfounded at how he was saying this to two young leaders who were excited about championing a cause of the African Union because they owned and believed in it so much. It was heartbreaking that he was also saying this in front of his two team members from the youth division who had joined us in that meeting. How discouraging it must be to learn that their own superior doesn’t believe in the contribution young people can make. Above all, how ironic was it that this was being said the same time the AU had declared it as the ‘Year of the Youth’.

During the same meeting, my colleague and I from YAT had explained to the commissioner that our hope was to empower young people to own the AU and its vision. That by contributing to the Reform Process, they would have a chance to dream about the ideal AU, and participate as the important stakeholders that they are. The response we received was, “If you want to dream about the AU, you can do it outside of my bed.”

It became clear that if we continued to pursue the same topic, the AU would not partner with us as they had in our previous convention. In addition, it revealed that he saw the AU as his, and not ours. While I will not crudely generalize that this is how all officials in the AU think, I could say that it is such thinking that hinders progress. Leaders in the public sphere don’t often consider themselves as the public servants that they are. At the core of it, this challenge at the personal level is what truly prohibits youth participation (and other progress we’re striving for).

We can work on improving systems and policies, but not much will change until we have public leaders with servant hearts. It is a changed leader that makes good policies, not the other way around.

Reflection on Identity Politics

If we hadn’t identified ourselves as a youth movement, I wonder if the outcome would’ve been different. Could we have been considered as mere concerned citizens who wanted to participate in affairs that mattered to us? Could we have worked with a department of our choice? Could we have picked a topic of discussion as we saw fit? The same could be said of women, people with disabilities or any other identity groupings that have been marginalized. It begs the question, when I walk into a room to discuss policy, do I want it to be apparent first that I am a woman and a young person? Should that influence how/why I am given a chance to speak? Shouldn’t it be rather because I have something of value to say?

Inclusion is crucial in maintaining and growing democracy. It is important to be intentional about the participation of marginalized groups that are often neglected. However, it becomes dangerous when inclusion becomes the end in itself. It can lead to such groupings simply becoming buzz words and we lose the real purpose of inclusion – to diversify perspectives in a discussion.

The main drawback that identity politics poses to democracy is that it shifts the conversation from being about diversity of ideas to the diversity of people. No matter our intention for pushing for the latter, it cannot guarantee that it will result in plurality of ideas.

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