Youth employment, Governance and Democracy in Africa: The Role of the Trade Unions,

By: Ahmed Alhaj (Site Admin)


By Vladimir Antwi- Danso (PhD) For OATUU,Khartoum, Sudan 14-16 May, 2011




Young people (i.e aged 15-24years) make up eighteen percent of the world's population today, or 1.2 billion in absolute terms of these 87% live in developing countries.  In Africa, roughly 200 million people fall within this age range, accounting for over 20 percent of the population, but this is expected to increase rapidly, because 42 percent of the current population is below 15 years of age.  While the youth population in Africa is not homogenous, the typical African youth, as given by medians, is 18 years-old female who lives in a rural setting, is literate but no longer attending school, and likely to be married with children.  The youth make up 40 percent of Africa's working age population; they also make up about 60 percent of total unemployed.  The share of unemployed youth among the total unemployed can be as high as 83 % in Uganda, 68 percent in Zimbabwe, and 56 percent in Burkina Faso.  In all, 72 percent of African youth live on less than $2 a day.  Joblessness is a major problem in rural areas, but so, too, in urban areas.  The latter have always attracted the rural poor in search of non-existent job opportunities. The irony is that in absolute numbers, young unemployment is more prevalent in urban areas than in rural areas.

At independence, education was seen as the surest, undisputed gateway to employment.  It no longer looks so certain.  The African development Indicators (ADI-2008-09) show that unemployment is higher among those with higher education attainment and those in wealthy households.  And for the lucky few who find work, they are more likely to work longer hours under intermittent and insecure work arrangements.  Unskilled to get stuck in low quality jobs and more vulnerable to early marriage and parenthood.  They are also more likely then adults to be in the informal sector.  In many countries, interventions so far have focused on programs that are narrow in scope, limited in time and too narrowly focused on urban areas.


For most African countries, the many challenges of youth employment are further amplified by conflicts and discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, race, religious, culture, health, or family status.  Unattended, the problem can only get worse. Africa's population is growing fast and is experiencing a slow demographic transition not expected to stabilize before 2050.  This transition will continue to have serious fiscal, political, and social implications, ranging from increased education and health costs, to risks of social unrest.

The Youth Unemployment challenge


The current and ongoing uprising in North Africa have been partly attributed to youth unemployment, which stands at 31 % and 34 % for Tunisia and Egypt, respectively.  The circumstances are exacerbated by higher levels of unemployment among youth women then young men.  High unemployment rates among the African youth, irrespective of the levels of education, indicate that the youth are either poorly prepared for the labor market, or the labor market is inadequate to receive large numbers of youth that are seeking employment.

The youth employment challenge is one that confronts all African countries, regardless of their stage of soci0-economic development, although the political and / or socio-economic context does contribute to the nature and extent of the problem.  It is within this context that governance or democracy in Africa and the role of the Trade Unions needs serious interrogation.

The Idea of Democracy

The idea of democracy is problematic in many ways.  Many are those who argue that a right to democracy does not exist.  No- one though contests that it promotes good outcomes.  In this context one may not contest the position of Richard Ameson that the supposed right to democracy is an example of a 'procedural right', and 'procedural rights are merely instruments for securing morally desirable outcomes'.  We may therefore, distinguish between democracy as means and democracy as goals.  According to Ali Mazrui, the most fundamental of the goals of democracy are probably four in number.  First is to make the rulers accountable and answerable for their actions and policies.  Second is to make the citizens effective participants in choosing those rulers and in regulating their actions.  Thirdly, to make the society as open and the economy as transparent as possible, and fourthly to make the social order fundamental y just and equitable to the greatest number possible.  'Accountable rulers, actively participating citizens, open society and social

Justice- those are the four fundamental ends of democracy'.  How to achieve these goals has elicited different means.

It must be noted however, that it is precisely this line of thinking that lends justification for constitutional constraints on majority rule.  Democracy then becomes a kind of contractual system with underlying moral obligations, where the authority of the state is based on the consent of the people, what is often noted in the literature as the 'social contract'.  The social contract then merely spells out the means for achieving the goals of democracy.  This is because socio-cultural and historical relativities shape the means for achieving the goals of democracy.   Mazrui demonstrates this by comparing democratic practices in Great Britain and the United States of America.  'In making the rulers more accountable some democracies ( like the United States) have chosen separation of powers and checks and balances, while other democracies ( like the United Kingdom) have chosen the more concentrated notion of sovereignty of parliament.  These are different means towards making the executive branch more accountable and answerable in its use of power.  On the open society, freedom of the press and speech, there is also a difference in how the United States and Great Britain regulate it.  The United States has a highly permissive legal system on freedom of speech, but more restrictive public opinion.  The United Kingdom has a more restrictive legal system on freedom of the press, but a more tolerant public opinion.

What Mazrui worries about is also our worry here.  'If  the goals of democracy are the same while the means for achieving them differ, are there African means of achieving those same four goals of accountability of rulers, participation of the citizens, openness of the society, and greater social justice?  That is the challenge facing constitution makers in Africa-how to keep the democratic goals constant while looking for democratic means more appropriate to Africa.  What are the values intrinsic to African democracy?  African communication, love for the family love for children, yearnings for inclusiveness- we discard these at our own peril.

The Triad: Democracy, Stability, and Development

One other big issue about the system of governance and democracy in Africa concerns its relationship to development.  The crucial question that always comes to mind where there is talk about democracy and development has been the issue whether Africa is underdeveloped because it is primarily undemocratic or Africa is undemocratic because it is primarily underdeveloped?  Which is cause and which is effect?  There is yet another dimension stability.  Stability is a socio-political precondition for both sustainable development and durable democracy.  Africa's three greatest needs therefore, are democracy, stability, and development, the two being the basic canvass for crafting the contours of the latter.

At the base is democracy which ensures stability, upon which development may be forthcoming.  The kind of development a country achieves is intrinsically linked with the amount of stability as generated by the viability of the democratic practice.  Alternatively, we may represent the Triad as shown below.

Democracy and Good Governance

The oft accepted definition of democracy is that given by Abrahim Lincoln as "government of the people, for the people and by the people".  The gene is of this definition is the period of juxtaposition between Athenian democracy and Spartan Oligarchy/despotism.  Time would not allow us to go into the details of the epoch.  But today, democracy has been equated to good governance and leadership.  But are they the same?  We shall soon know.

What is good governance?

The parameters for measuring good governance are mixed and difficult to universalize.  Often times we equate democracy to good governance.  But are they the same?  The difficulty lies in socio-cultural and historical relativities.  Usually, universal adult suffrage and /or constant elections, the presence of a constitutions of governance, are the quickest pointers to democracy and good governance.  But these mean nothing, if those parameters have not been stepped in socio- cultural and historical specificities, and especially if they are not intended for some specific goals.  We may here refer again to Mazrui's comparison of British and American experiences on public space and public opinion.  Take also, for instance, the collegiate electoral system in the US, take also the British system, where the Prime Minister is not elected by popular vote, take most parts of the Arab world,  where women have no voting rights, and you would realize that there is something wrong when trying to universalize the principle of universal suffrage.  Incidentally, most of the parameters prescribed for Africa are ethnocentric and are in large measure the cause of mis-governance in Africa eg.  The ballot box/winner –takes- all principle of democracy has not helped matters in Africa.  Reference here may be made to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Togo, Chad, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and La Cote d'Ivoire.  All the ingredients of democracy as prescribed by the international community were present, but what happened later?

In my own humble estimation, democracy has often been confused with good governance


Good Governance

·       Constitution

The presence of democracy PLUS

·       Separation of powers

·       Good, visionary leadership

·       Institutions of governance

·       Institutionalism

·       Freedom and rights (of speech association etc)

·       Prudence in economic governance

·       Frequent Elections

·       Probity and accountability


·       Dialogue and Transparency


·       Participation in the process by the socio-economic partners in development


·       Provision of basic needs of the people


·       Adherence to global best practices



Clearly and by our matrix above, the domain of good governance is wider than that of democracy.  There is the possibility of having all the ingredients of democracy and yet good governance may not ensue.  It is only in such understanding that space may be made for socio-cultural and historical specificities.  Good governance is inseparable from good leadership and the active participation of the socio-economic partners in development.

The picture in Africa

To have a good view of Africa's image, we need to ask how Africa has been faring in these areas- of democracy, stability, and development.

Africa is known to have produced some of the most grotesquely predatory governments ever known in the world.  Despotism, corruption, clientilism, neo-patrimoniaslism, ineptitude of leadership, and imprudence in economic governance have combined to deny Africa any measure of stability and development.  Increasingly, therefore every variable as shown in our matrix above has a minimalist approach and virtually no progress is made.  It is the reason for the numerous civil-military cycles we have witnessed over the years in Africa n governance.  It is the reason for Africa's economic non-performance, debt and aid-dependence, and it is the reason for governments' inability to provide the basic needs of life.  It is also the reason for youth unemployment and despair, deprivation, poverty, and instability in most parts of the continent.  Today, Africa's share of global trade is a mere two percent. According to Christopher Clapham after three decades of independence ( in 1992 to be precise), the gross domestic product GDP of sub-Saharan Africa ( made up of 43 countries) was 'just a little above that of the Netherlands'.

Indeed, it is the picture that has created the condition for mortgaging African governance (both political and economic) into the hands of external managers.


Natural then, ethno-centric approaches on both economic and political governance have always been prescribed for Africa.  The external managers for African economies (notably the IMF and the World Bank) have often prescribed neo-liberal taxonomies.  They have often focused on issues like resource flows, levels of economic diversification, domestic mobilization of savings and investment, national productivity, per capita income, etc, in measuring development, as if as it were, these variables, in and by themselves assure employment, basic needs or drive away poverty.  In actual fact that was how structural adjustment became a one-size-fits-all capsule for ailments of all African countries.  Indeed, in all countries of Africa where the neo-liberal economic paradigm has been experimented, nascent industries have died unemployment has soured, poverty has exacerbated, debt levels have increased , and the provision of basic amenities has not been forthcoming.  Meanwhile, the emphasis on the Westminster model of democracy that does not respect the African reality has combined effectively with the neo-liberal economic prescriptions to destabilize Africa.  In most places implosion has been the result.

In any case, the crises in most parts of Africa must be seen in the broader context of the democratic deficit in Africa.  Democracy in Africa is badly hiccupping because of ignoring the socio-historical and cultural specificities of the continent contemporary.  African states are poorly functioning hybrids of indigenous cultures and customs mixed with Arab and European models of governance that arrived with invasions, colonialism, migration, and globalization.  In such a setting, one would expect visionary leadership to be to chart new contours, taking into cognizance Africa's socio-historical relativities  for the development of their countries.  Unfortunately, instead of looking at democracy as a process, African leaders view it as an event, and instead of institutional renewal, there is the personal and/ or  the individual ( big –man politics').  One basic problem in African governance, therefore, is the fixation on the personal failings of leaders.  This obscures the deeper problem:  a fundamental disjuncture between Africa's governance modern political institutions and its ethnic communities and traditional  institutions Africa's governance crises are firmly rooted in its dysfunctional political systems.  This disjuncture, so well reflected in instability in most parts of Africa, is at the heart of the continent's governance crisis.

As already indicated, in analyzing the prospects of democracy and good governance in Africa it may be necessary to distinguish between ultimate goals and necessary instruments for achieving them.  Africa can keep the democratic goals- the four fundamental ends of democracy-of accountable rulers, actively participating citizens, open society and social justice constant.  While looking for democratic means more appropriate to Africa's best hope lies in finding a middle way of governance that is inclusive and rooted in the legitimacy of its own socio-historical, socio-cultural and economic realities, but borrows pragmatically from the globalized system to fit its challenges.

The role of the Trade Unions

The central functions of a trade union is to represent people at work protecting, defending and promoting their interests.  The existence of a strong and recognized trade union is a pre-requisite not only to industrial peace, but also to national upliftment.  Decisions taken through the process of collective bargaining and negotiations between employer and unions and between unions and governments are more influential in shaping the harmony required for development.

Trade unions play an important role and are helpful in effective communication between the workers and the management.  They provide the advice and support to ensure that the differences of opinions  do not turn into major conflicts.  They also play an important educational role, organizing courses for their members on a wide range of matters.  Seeking a healthy and safe working environment is also a prominent feature of union activity.  Above all, unions either set or direct the national development agenda.  It is against this background that any discourse on democracy and/ or governance cannot be complete without considering the role of the trade unions.  Trade Unionism has played and will continue to play a very meaningful role in shaping the destiny of Africa.

The youth unemployment challenge in Africa falls squarely on the laps of the unions.  The ADI, already referred to above, indicates that even though agriculture offers over 60 % of occupation, in most countries of Africa, the fastest-growing form of employment is the non-agricultural household enterprise.  This sector already accounts for 24 percent of the labor force in Uganda and 30percent Senegal and although this employment is mostly urban, there is an important rural non-farm sector as well.  Surely then agriculture may be noted as one of the most promising sectors for youth employment.  Additional investments are needed in irrigation, water resources management, and research and extension , in increased use of improved seeds, fertilizers and better agricultural  practices that enable young African farmers to go beyond subsistence farming .  However, the demand for youth labor will not increase without a dynamic rural economy in both the agriculture and non-farm sectors.  Making well balanced choices for employment-intensive investments in not only agriculture but other rural non-farm activities can create immediate , short-term employment opportunities which can be more easily tapped by young people.  Agriculture may still be the largest source of rural income in Africa- it accounts for 65 percent of total youth employment- but the shares of incomes from non-farm, rural activities in total income are already relatively high and increasing.  Indeed in Africa any development agenda must recognize that in the short-term only rural activities, farm or non-farm, can effectively create occupation for most new job seekers.

It is clear from the aforesaid that the Trade Unions should depart from the traditional close membership of 'trades' and expand their membership or even engage the rural farm and non-farm jobs as their platform.  This base has been left out for far too long.  They lack systematic organization, direction and focus.  The trade unions must therefore encourage governments to turn attention on to this large segment of society and build their economies around it.  Beyond this, the unions must demand diversification of economies.  While agro-based activities can form the basis for upliftment, both rural and urban non-farm activities need urgent support from government.  The urban non-farm activities, especially, rarely have access to credit, yet, they are mostly self-employed and form a large segment of the overall GDP of many countries.  The so-called ' Asian Tigers' are known to have become prosperous through value-addition strategies.  Africa's dilemma lies primarily in over-reliance on primary exports with low elasticities of demand on the world market.

On the economy

In the main, labor, in addition to the aforesaid, must stress a people-centred development paradigm that includes the following:

·       The fast-tracking of Africa's economic integration.  First ,there is the need for laying emphasis on infrastructure.  Infrastructure that promote regional and continental integration in Africa should be prioritized.  They include roads, rails, air, ports, energy (including hydro, solar and wind) energy in which Africa has comparative advantage.  This will enhance trade promotion of intra-African trade as well as internal tourism both at national and regional levels will increase employment and wealth for the people and government.

·       The prioritization of the decent work Agenda as the best way to get out of poverty.  Here there is the need to link the Decent work Agenda with the Basic Needs Development Programmes.  These basic needs include food, housing, health, education, electricity, transport, ( rail, air, and sea/water), along with their infrastructure, communications (press, radio, television , ICT).  It is all these eight basic needs that will provide the 9, which is decent work (prioritizing the basic need, eg. Food, will lead to transportation in the agriculture sector, including assistance to that vital sector, and agro-allied industrialization and the creation of millions of decent jobs

·       Promotion of local (indigenous) non-farm  private sector, including the SME's will lead to the flourishing of African entrepreneurship.  Indeed, a flourishing indigenous private sector will encourage local consumption, generate and spread wealth, and eradicate poverty.  To do this, there will be the need to ensure access to credit and also lower interest rates in Africa countries considerably to less than 10 %.  In Europe and US, it is about 2 %.

·       Indeed, labor unions should be more proactive in the design and implementation of policies that are meant to steer economies towards employment generation and decent work. No-one should tell Africa that the market is' presumptions (of the Chicago School of Thought), notably encapsulated in liberal paradigms, have failed in Africa and that the only way out is for the state and the market to find accommodation in promoting economic development.  In this sense, the public sector should be revamped; the public service must play a key role in development.

These, we believe, are better solutions towards a people centered development.

On Democracy and Good Governance

Unions have a key role to play in educating their followers about the need for a democratic culture.  Here, work ethic, human rights, the rule of law, and constitutionalism must be everybody's concern.  The unions must be part of setting the agenda for democratic governance.  In the main, the need for locating the democratic goals and the means for achieving them must be a priority.  The democratic goals, as we have stated, are accountability of rulers, participation of the citizens, openness of the society, and greater social justice.  The means for attaining them should be as designed by the African Charter for popular Participation in Development.


Youth un-employment is a reality on the African continent.  As Africa stagnates in economic development, beyond prominently by instability and deficits in democratic governance, while population, especially of the youth increase, the tendency for exacerbating the situation is real.  Incidentally, Africa can reap the demographic divided, if the youth is tapped as the most abundant asset that the continent can claim.  It is often argued that East Asia was able to reap the demographic divided from a large work force with fewer dependents by putting the right policies and institutions in place.  Part of the Asian Miracle is, in fact, often attributed to that demographic divided.

The need therefore, for action cannot be overemphasized labor as a mobilizing force has a very important role to play in ensuring that democracy, stability, and development are achieved on the continent.  With the right policies and right institutions in place, ably supported and policed by vibrant labor unions, Africa can overcome.   




Sudanow is the longest serving English speaking magazine in the Sudan. It is chartarized by its high quality professional journalism, focusing on political, social, economic, cultural and sport developments in the Sudan. Sudanow provides in depth analysis of these developments by academia, highly ...


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