Thursday, February 10, 2011

Why Africa needs to lower its voting age to 16

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

development opportunity


Calestous Juma

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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