A survey conducted by the East African Institute of the Aga Khan University showed that between 68 and 90 per cent of East Africa’s youth held positive views about democracy and would participate in elections. However, trust in politicians was as low as 40 per cent.
One could be persuaded to suggest that East African youth fancy the idea of elections or democracy but disdain their outcomes — politicians and government. However, confidence and trust in government in “strong leader” models like Rwanda was as high as 80 per cent. Waning trust in politicians and government is not unique to East African youth. There is an emerging and worrying trend of mistrust between citizens and government.
According to the Pew Research Center, fewer than 30 per cent of Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major national poll conducted between 2007 and 2015. Similarly, a recent World Values Survey, which polled 73,000 people in 57 countries, revealed that trust in government and institutions of democracy such as political parties has reached an historical low.
The perceptions of East Africa’s youth underscore a deep and concerning contradiction — passion and apathy for politics. Essentially, youth are enthusiastic about the political process but deeply distrusting of the outcomes of political participation. Clearly the youth appear to honour and respect elections but despise the people they elect, the politicians and the governments they form.
There is a crippling decline in the belief that government can even deliver on services or aspirations of the youth. It is not surprising that while up to 90 per cent of youth have a positive view of elections, less than 30 per cent of East African youth reported that they had benefited from government initiatives. Moreover, youth trust family and religious institutions more than they trust government or politicians.
The youth are a consequential majority in every sense — political and socio-economic. About 80 per cent of the estimated 146 million East Africans (excluding South Sudanese), are below the age of 35. How youth engage in the electoral process, and their perception and confidence in the political process have strong political and socio-economic implications for the future of East Africa.
But the magnitude of mistrust in politics and government by citizens must lead us to question or wonder if elections are the best mechanism for transforming the collective will of the people into tangible social or economic outcomes. Elections are even less believable as expressions of the collective will of citizens especially when fear mongering, misinformation and manipulation in the electioneering period inundate voters.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is flawed to the extent that it conceives of elections as the embodiment of democracy. Elections can cause all kinds of outcomes like Brexit and the possibility of a Trump presidency. In Africa elections have been associated with violence, ethnic cleansing, political instability and economic decline.
Globally, there is a growing perception that elections are gravely antiquated tools, which could undermine democracy if they are not enhanced with more enlightened forms of public participation.
Dr Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at the Aga Khan University.