Why Africa needs to lower its voting age to 16
With the youngest and fastest growing population in the world, Africa
should move to convert the 'youth bulge' from a threat into a
Wednesday February 9, 2011
In apparent concern following democratic uprisings in north Africa, the
African Union has decided to hold its next summit in June 2011
on the theme of "accelerating youth empowerment for sustainable
One of the most pressing issues in African politics is to realign the
continent's voting systems with its age structure. One way to do this is
to lower the voting age to 16 so as to expand opportunities for more
young people help shape their own future.
Africa has the youngest and fastest growing population in the world.
Over 40% of the population are under the age of 15. More than 20% are
between the ages of 15 and 24. Three out of five of Africa's employed
are young people, according to the International Labour Office. Young
people account for 36% of the overall working age population.
There are two key steps Africa can take now that can help to convert the
"youth bulge" from a threat into a development opportunity. The first is
political inclusion, by lowering the voting age, and the second is
expanding opportunities for technical training and associated job
Most African countries have set the minimum voting age at 18. The
decision to do so is based more on tradition and less on careful
observation of social, economic and political realities. Demographic
shifts, education, greater access to new technologies, access to
information and political awareness have significantly improved
decision-making among Africa's youth.
The minimum voting age is 21 in Central African Republic and Gabon, and
20 in Cameroon. But people between the ages of 12 and 18 work,
participate in political discussion through social media, and make
household decisions. Yet they cannot vote. In Kenya, for example, which
has a population of 38 million, about 4 million people are aged between
12 and 18, most of whom are socially, economically and politically
Lowering the voting age 16 for all African countries would not only
reflect the demographic structure of the continent, but it would also
expand political participation. Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador and
Nicaragua have lowered the voting age to 16. In Bosnia, Serbia and
Slovenia, 16-year-olds can vote if they are employed. The voting age in
Indonesia, North Korea, Timor-Leste and the Seychelles is 17.
Lowering the voting age continues to be the subject of heated debate in
many countries. One of the main arguments put forward against it is that
people at the age of 16 cannot be relied upon to make informed
decisions. These arguments are usually made by older people who ignore
the many decisions that young people already make.
People at 16 have much more at stake in regard to the future than many
of those holding power today. Yet there is no maximum voting age, except
in the Vatican where 80 is the upper limit for voting for a new pope.
In some countries politicians have resisted the move by seeking the
redefine the term "youth". A few years ago a Kenyan politician, Muhammad
Kuti, proposed that the legal definition of "youth"
title="definition of youth">definition of "youth] should be changed to
include people under the age of 50.
It is true that lowering the voting age will not necessarily increase
political participation by young people. It will need to be accompanied
by formal and informal political education. However, political education
on the role of young people is even more urgent for older leaders whose
worldviews were shaped by more traditional societies. Many of them do
not realise the extent to which modern technologies and education have
shifted power from centralised authorities to peer networks.
The AU summit will be hosted by its new chairperson, President Teodoro
Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, who has been in power since 1979 and has
been heavily criticised for human rights violations. His effort to
create a UN science prize in his name was recently revoked after
opposition from human rights groups. Obiang's one-year stint gives him
an opportunity to lead a genuine effort to "empower" Africa's youth by
getting countries to lower the voting age to 16. Without such decisive
and immediate steps, the summit will appear to young people as yet
another forum that is strong on promise and weak on delivery.
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