Arusha. The second edition of the Africa Drive for Democracy Conference kicked off here Wednesday with the Mozambican statesman Joaquim Chissano giving a keynote address where he emphasised the role of the African youth in driving the democratisation agenda in the continent.
Organised jointly by the Centre for Strategic Litigation (CLS), Institute for Securities Studies (ISS), and MS Training Centre for Development Cooperation (MS-TCDC), the yearly event brought over 300 participants from 45 African countries to discuss the future of democracy in the continent.
Four former African heads of state and governments participated in this year’s conference, which includes Chissano, Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete (Tanzania), Ernest Bai Koroma (Sierra Leone) and Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe (Ethiopia). The four leaders’ retreat between July 17 and July 18 preceded Wednesday’s conference.
In his keynote address, President Chissano, who served as the second president of an independent Mozambique from 1986 to 2005, urged the African youth to “seize the moment” and push the democratisation agenda in the continent.
“I’m directing this message to Africa’s greatest asset: our young people,” the former leader of the southern African nation said. “When we were engaged in liberation efforts, we were not as privileged with the tools that the digital revolution and advancement have afforded your generation.
“Seize the moment and take up the responsibilities for the destiny of your respective societies and the continent as a whole while strongly believing in the benefit of the digital revolution.”
Credited with transforming the war-torn country of Mozambique into a successful African democracy, Chissano said that the democratic culture in Africa could only thrive where people’s representatives and leaders possess a strong political will that practices and encourages virtues like restraint, tolerance and service.
He said these three virtues could have saved Mozambique and spared several countries the horrors and destructions of civil war.
“Therefore, long before institutions are formidable and established, the political will of the individual leaders is a crucial ingredient that the drive for democracy should espouse,” Mr Chissano explained.
But he also emphasised the role of processes and institutions, pointing out that the drive for democracy should also consider the limitation of human nature, theorising that the democratic culture could only be safeguarded by adhering to processes and institutions.
“The supply side of democracy must be matched by a powerful demand side that agitates and pushes for a democratic settlement. Citizens must impose restrain on the mighty,” he said, urging the youth to participate actively in such a process. “As they say, power concedes nothing without a demand.”
However, Chissano, who served as the Chairperson of the African Union from 2003 to 2004, emphasised the positive use of available technologies among the youth, cautioning that while they can be used for positive ends, they can also be abused.
“I feel that I should not go without cautioning the youth about the existence of those who use [social media] for bad causes, including trying to deviate us from the direction towards our objective [of democratisation],” Mr Chissano warned.
Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn Boshe supported this call, describing Africa as a continent of young people and saying that the youth should be at the forefront of the struggles for democratic changes.
However, Mr Boshe insisted that applying social media and other digital technologies to bring about necessary changes among young people in their respective countries should not come at the expense of physical organising, fearing that the entire project might be in jeopardy if that happens.
Mr Boshe, who served his country from 2012 to 2018, gave an example of Sudan, a country embroiled in political instability and civil unrest, noting that the young people there had their revolution stolen from them by the military because it was more organised than them.
Sudan, a country in Northeast Africa, has been embroiled in an armed conflict between two separate military factions ruling the country since the army deposed the country’s long-term president Omar al-Bashir in 2018 following months of pressure from the largest social movement in the country’s recent history.
“This story is everywhere,” Mr Boshe said during a panel discussion. “People come to the streets. They force the government to relinquish [power]. But, ultimately, since there’s no organised group, the army comes in and takes over.”
He said that young people should organise themselves properly if they want to enjoy the benefits of their struggles, urging them not to use social media to destabilise their respective countries.
“[Young people] should organise themselves properly, as an entity, as a civil society, with proper leadership so that you can resist any temptation from outside, any suppression and pressure that comes from outside so that a proper transition takes place in the country,” Mr Boshe advised.
This year’s Drive for Democracy Conference, happening under the theme Towards a Strong Democracy Movement in Africa, is happening against the backdrop of democratic backsliding in Africa, a phenomenon organisers think is associated with the absence of strong social movement in the continent.
In the eyes of the conference’s organisers, the African democratic movement remains fragile, fragmented and lacking in popular support, notwithstanding the noble cause upon which it derives its mandate.
Therefore, the main thrust of this year’s conference is to take stock of the state of democracy on the continent, highlight and celebrate the achievements of the African democratic movement, learn from the challenges encountered, and craft forward-looking approaches towards promoting vibrant and tolerant democracies.
Phenomena like neoliberalism, state capture, authoritarian populism, fundamentalist extremism and the role of pop culture and the digital revolution take the centre of the conference’s deliberations.
In his address Wednesday, President Jakaya Kikwete underlined the significance of these deliberations, pointing out that the commitment to democratic governance and governance systems is crucial for peace, shared prosperity, and collective ownership of the development agenda.
“We must talk about matters that irritate us, singularly and collectively,” Mr Kikwete said. “It is my sincere hope that during the day, participants of this conference will feel free to share their experiences and insights on the state of democracy in the continent.”
Mr Kikwete said democracy thrives where citizens and leaders openly debate their independent views on the state of affairs and maintain their commitment to accountability.
“Critical reviews and debates, in my humble opinion, including with those we may not necessarily agree with, [are] necessary for Africa’s democracy to thrive,” he noted.
Lukelo Francis is The Chanzo’s journalist from Dar es Salaam. He is available at email@example.com.