In summer 2023, Senegalese youth helped to lead massive protests against President Macky Sall’s government, protests that ultimately extracted a promise that Sall would not run for a third term. Stories like this illustrate the power of youth, as well as their demographic significance in sub-Saharan Africa, where 60 percent of the population is under twenty-five years old. This “youth bulge,” high levels of youth unemployment, and stories like this from Senegal have led some policymakers and commentators to view youth as a liability. Yet our book Africa’s Urban Youth: Challenging Marginalization, Claiming Citizenship incorporates youth voices to provide a more complex angle on their citizenship. Through focus group discussions and interviews with Ghanaian, Ugandan, and Tanzanian youth aged eighteen to thirty-five, as well as Afrobarometer survey data, we show that young people see protest as only a minor action linked to their identities as citizens. Instead, they embrace a comprehensive view of “everyday citizenship”: one that takes citizenship obligations in relation to the state seriously, but that centers grassroots activities as a means to live out “good citizenship.” Their views of good citizenship are shaped by contestation over identities, with age, gender, income level, and church attendance shaping those processes. Our fieldwork in Accra, Kampala, and Dar es Salaam provides several lessons.
Good citizens help their communities. Regardless of gender, church attendance, or income level, young people in our study countries understood citizenship in terms of engagement with their local communities. Citizenship stretched far beyond legal classifications that gave some individuals rights recognized by state institutions to include identities rooted in relationships. Youth explained that a good citizen loves and cares for her community and her neighbors. While voting, paying taxes, and following the law constituted good citizenship to most youth, what stood out was the importance of everyday contributions to one’s community: cleaning up trash in the neighborhood, donating to funeral costs for a friend, or bringing food to a family in need. Citizenship is a lived experience embedded in relationships and obligations, which in turn create a foundation on which youth can contribute to building the nation. While few youth actively engaged in holding the government to account by protesting or organizing to bring an issue to officials, those who engaged in these ways were motivated by community-level ties and relationships.
Good citizens contribute to the economy. Young people frequently cited work as a central component of citizenship. Working hard, whether as an activist, a stay-at-home parent, or on one’s side hustle was the primary way youth felt they could “build the nation.” A young person’s income-level had a strong effect on the way they experienced citizenship. While higher income youth stressed productivity and self-reliance as essential components of “good citizenship,” lower income youth were more likely to point to collective activities and those that fostered reliance on others. Income level also shaped how youth respondents viewed the legal aspects of citizenship: while higher income youth were especially legalistic and keen to see those who perpetrated crimes punished, lower income youth worried they might be painted as criminals and thus, seen as bad citizens.
Women and men experience citizenship differently. We found that patriarchy shaped how men and women respondents understood citizenship across all three country cases. While both emphasized gender equality under the law, their discussions of everyday citizen actions often demonstrated gendered perspectives. A good citizen who is a woman might focus on her role as a wife or caregiver, whereas a man might be more likely to express his citizenship by providing for his family and offering security to his neighbors. Yet our respondents also demonstrated that gendered citizenship is a dynamic identity, changing with circumstances such as single parenthood or unemployment.
Faith shapes citizenship. Youth respondents who attended church frequently found that their congregations folded them into the community, often giving them opportunities to connect, network, and grow. Church connections enhanced youth’s sense that they were meeting their citizenship obligations as everyday citizens through these relationships and activities. Church attendance shaped citizenship in other ways too, as frequent churchgoers were more likely to use legalistic language to describe citizenship and to define religious activities (e.g., prayer and fasting) as citizen activities.
Good citizens can grow frustrated. While most young people spoke positively about the ways they contributed as good citizens in their communities and their role in building the nation, several expressed disappointment, frustration, and anger with their country’s political system and their elders. Corruption, repressive state policies, and a sense that youth were being left behind contributed to the feeling that their citizen belonging was being undermined. This disillusionment led small groups to grow apathetic, to exit the civic arena, or to actively contest citizenship by excluding others along ethnic or religious lines.
Conclusion. The importance of this book is how it privileges the voices of African youth. We shine light on the complex and at times contradictory experiences of youth citizens in the often challenging contexts of urbanization and neoliberalism. While some youth expressed frustration and anger, most urban youth had a deep belief that their citizenship meant making their lives, the lives of those around them, and their country better. They were active, creative, and hopeful for the future – a counterpoint to the perspective that youth are cynical and politically despondent.