"Lower Africa's Voting Age to 16"
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Nairobi)
November 22, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
In a predictable show of force, Kenyan voters have consigned a large number of sitting parliamentarians to political oblivion in party nominations.
Attempts by Kenya’s Youth Affairs Minister Mohammed Kuti to change the legal definition of youth to include people up to 50 years old was a clear sign of political panic.
But there is an easier alternative to panic: incumbent leaders should start to transfer power to younger generations in an orderly manner. One way to do so is to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 at most. More than four million people aged between 12 and 18 are politically-active but they will not appear on Kenya’s voters’ register.
The law that set the minimum voting age at 18 has yet to catch up with Africa’s economic and political realities. People aged between 12 and 18 years work, send text messages, get married and give bribes. Yet they cannot vote. Their voice should count on key issues that affect their lives such as education; health; and employment.
Africa should follow Austria, Brazil, Cuba and Nicaragua in lowering the voting age to 16. Good sense prevails in Bosnia, Serbia and Slovenia where employed persons aged 16-18 can vote. The voting age in Indonesia, North Korea, Sudan and Seychelles is 17. Iran lowered the voting age to 15 but reversed it. A bill has been drafted to restore the decision.
More young people are disenfranchised in other African countries such as Central African Republic and Gabon where the voting age is 21 (of course better that Uzbekistan’s 25 year requirement).
The youth are the sources of most of the creative ideas in society. But their ideas are not going to count when they are disenfranchised. Young people know that education and health are closely connected.
They should not have to choose between going to school and going to a clinic. These facilities should be co-located wherever possible. Many of the unemployed nurses could be posted to schools as nurses and health educators.
It is important that free basic education be available to all. But it is critical to ensure that the curriculum reflects the demands of the knowledge economy. The youth would prefer that every high school offer practical technical education that prepares them to be productive members of society.
Shortage of teachers is often cited as a reason not to expand technical education. There is no shortage of Africans with expertise to pass on to next generations. But professionals with expertise in a diversity of technical skills can hardly get beyond educational bureaucracies and step in a classroom.
One way to open up the educational system is to institute a national service that requires every able-minded person to spend part of her or his time a year teaching. It is commendable that African leaders join respective prayer meetings. It is equally important that they act as role models by offering classes in their areas of expertise.
At least every university student should spend some time teaching and learning the basics of passing on skills and knowledge to the next generation. Experts from private enterprises could play a key role as associate or adjunct teachers.
Finally, there is the issue of employment generation. The majority of productive people in Africa are of school-going age. This means that schools must start to serve as centers of production and not simply providers of certificates.
Prof Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
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