The sad irony of youth participation in election violence

Two seated men talking (USAID)
Nigeria’s popular #VoteNotFight campaign in 2015 helped keep contentious elections relatively peaceful. (USAID)

In many countries, especially those that have recently endured conflict, elections are unfortunately marred by violence and young people “are definitely on the front lines” of it, according to Michael Jobbins. Jobbins is the director of global affairs and partnerships at Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization working on conflict resolution around the world.

As part of his job, Jobbins has monitored projects to support free and fair elections and electoral education programs in some African countries. He said that in the aftermath of electoral clashes, “the bodies that you see out there are the young who are out there dying in the streets, clashing with other young people to advance the interests of the older generation.”

The goal of inciting violence is to disrupt the electoral process and political campaigns or to repress voter turnout and thereby deny the legitimacy of opposing points of view, he said.

But Jobbins said it is difficult for many to resist resorting to violence when their country’s elections aren’t fair, are poorly run or are not transparent. For young people who do not have meaningful ways to participate in politics on their own behalf, such as through youth movements and organizations, they may see their only role in a process dominated by older generations as “agents rallying people up in the streets for a little bit of cash.”

“It’s kind of a sad irony that young people should have the most incentive to envision the long term and invest in the future, but in fact, young people are the most likely to be manipulated to sacrifice their own long-term interests and maybe even their lives for the sake of the older generation in power,” he said.

TAKING A STAND AGAINST MANIPULATION

But more young people are recognizing this situation and actively opposing election violence. Deborah Thornton, a professional associate in the public affairs section at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, recently helped facilitate sessions for young women on elections and democracy that included using the YALI Network’s online course “Understanding Elections and Civic Responsibility.” She said at the end of the sessions the women resoundingly voiced their opposition to violence.

“The kids in general don’t want fighting,” she said, and one big reason is their shared experience of conflict.

“They’ve all lived and their families have lived through what happened with the 20 years of civil war, and they understand how that violence can get out of control … and they don’t want to go back. They’re looking to go forward,” Thornton said.

That kind of feeling was exhibited in Nigeria’s 2015 election with the “Vote Not Fight” campaign, where young people joined with the media, artistic community, civil society and nongovernmental organizations in a mass mobilization to demonstrate “the will of the people to see the elections go peacefully,” Jobbins said.

“From the most elite to the ordinary people, there was a recognition that the elections risked being contentious and everyone needed to do their part to prevent that and to accept the result,” he said. The campaign’s success surprised many observers who had predicted a bloody process.

THE YOUNG ARE NOT ‘A PROBLEM TO BE SOLVED’

Jobbins said many older people “talk about young people like they are a problem to be solved” or tell them to be patient as “the leaders of tomorrow.”

“In fact, young people are the leaders of today. And young people are voters and the majority of voters in Africa,” he said. “It’s wrong to think about preventing young people’s participation in violence without also encouraging young people’s participation in the elections process themselves in a constructive way.”

The international community has recently thrown its support behind this idea in the form of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 concerning youth, peace and security. The measure encourages countries to incorporate young people as partners in promoting peace and security and to give them a real say in how they are governed.

“It’s an opportunity for rising young leaders to take advantage of that and use it as they interact with their governments, because there is a growing international awareness that young people have to have a seat at the table just like women, and just like people who need to have a stake in peace and security,” Jobbins said.

Want to learn more? Check out the U.N.’s toolkit on Resolution 2250 for ideas on how to use this new resource for youth participation. You can also discover more about getting involved for political and social change by taking the YALI Network online course on “Understanding Elections and Civic Responsibility.” The three-part course covers the role of citizens in the electoral process, how to exercise civic responsibility, and how to hold officials accountable. Then, after you’ve earned your certificate, share with others what you’ve learned through hosting a #YALILearns event!

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