Implementing the African Youth Charter: wise up and act now!

The African Youth Charter (AYC) is a quintessential demonstration of African governments’ commitment to entrench youth issues in national and regional decision-making processes. The charter provides for the various rights and freedoms outlined in the earlier article by connect Africa development editor. To what extent are these rights different from human rights provisions enshrined in each country’s constitution? In principle, countries could ratify the charter only to the extent that it is consistent with extant national laws. Even when provisions are at variance, the provisos in article two regarding ‘accordance with their constitutional processes’ makes it clear that the national laws will take pre-eminence.

In fact South Africa’s parliament had reservations regarding the provisions of article 24 which refers to mentally and physically challenged youth and ignores other forms of disabilities. However, given that section 213/13 of the South African constitution only permits parliament to accept or reject international agreements, with no provisions for reservations or ‘tampering,’ the charter was adopted ‘as is.’ For the most part, the AYC’s ‘rights and freedoms’ provisions are enshrined in various national constitutions and other international agreements like the Universal declaration on human rights, the African Charter on human and people’s rights and importantly, the African charter on the rights and welfare of the child. So what makes the rights provisions of the AYC different?

Perhaps, the other provisions regarding education, health care, participation, etc as contained in articles 10 through 25 give more credence to the ‘rights’ provisions. Within a human rights framework, many of these provisions could be considered as citizens entitlements.  Therefore, despite their demographic heterogeneity, their being within the age bracket 15 to 35puts them together, separates them from older adults and younger children and justifies a separate framework which tackles their needs.

In some countries the national youth policies, which in principle operationalise the AYC, distinguish between various categories of youth and how policies address their needs. The Nigerian youth policy released in 2009 addresses the needs of youth with disabilities, street kids, etc. but it remains to be seen how these issues have been addressed practically. In part, this is attributable to the fact that many youth ministries and departments lack the political mandate or budgetary provisions to implement many of the provisions of the charter or associated youth policies as these are the responsibilities of other ministries and departments. This calls for an integrated approach to youth development involving a range of departments, a concept which South Africa has been working to operationalise and recently drafted a strategy.

There are examples in the continent that can be adapted to youth. Within its education sector, Zambia attempts to better coordinate its resources by putting in place the Zambia Education Project Tracking System (ZEPTS) a database of education projects across the country implemented by government, development agencies and civil society. The Nigerian government in addition to drafting a youth mainstreaming framework over the last couple of years has recently initiated a process of inter-ministerial cooperation with the launch of a youth enterprise contest with the involvement of three key Ministries. Even this is short of ideal as various ‘line ministries, departments and agencies’ appear left out.

Achieving the aims of the youth charter requires the integration and proper funding of youth issues within national strategies like PRSPs and national vision documents. With countries like the Seychelles, Nigeria and Malawi with long term development goals elapsing in the year 2020, and Zambia and Kenya elapsing by 2030, meaningful progress can be attained by implementing programmes that benefit youth and designing a framework for monitoring and evaluation of both outputs and outcomes.

The road to ‘Banjul’ was long and bumpy but it produced one of Africa’s most rapidly ratified charters. Five years after, the situation of young people has not improved much. The challenges towards attaining the aims of the youth charter, related policies and the goals for the decade on youth development until 2018 are daunting. Governments must step-up and take charge, and do what is right by implementing pro-youth programmes focusing on education, employment and meeting young people’s needs, including the targeted social services. Otherwise, as has been reported in the Nigeria and South African media, with current high levels of unemployment and illiteracy, rather than being a demographic opportunity for enhancing their countries’ prospects for growth and development as propounded by some ‘youth bulge’ theorists, young people could be time bomb waiting to explode. The time for African governments to wise up, sit up and act is now.  Otherwise we may well be expecting an ‘Africa spring.’

Originally contributed to Connect African Development