The AU has tossed aside its youth council. What does this mean for Africa’s youngsters?

A general view shows the opening of the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the AfricanUnion (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 9, 2020. Picture: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
A general view shows the opening of the 33rd Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and the Government of the AfricanUnion (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 9, 2020. Picture: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

The appointment of the first-ever African Union Commission (AUC) Youth Envoy and Advisory Council in 2018 held not only our individual hopes but the hopes of the continent.

It was meant to be historic; instead it was anything but.

Being brand new, shiny and starry-eyed I would like to recount the encounter from the very first meeting with the AUC Youth Division and discuss plans for our roles and mandate.

It was my first time in Addis Ababa and I was excited to meet my colleagues.

An extraordinary mix of talented young leaders, we were ready to take action.

The first day we learnt about the four pillars of the demographic dividend – employment and entrepreneurship, education and skills development, health and well-being, rights, governance and youth empowerment – which would unleash the potential of youth on the continent but also the 2018 African Union (AU) theme of the year.

Last year’s theme was refugees and internally displaced persons and in 2020 we are working or hopefully “working” towards Silencing the Guns. Although, let’s face it, the honest truth is that the AU moves from one theme to the next, but there is basically no accounting or monitoring or even linkage from one theme to the other.

We also discussed our roles and mandate. At that point we realised the AU hadn’t really mapped it out, but many of us also saw it as an exciting opportunity for us to shape things.

Little did we know the internal battles and bureaucracy we would face.

More so, we were not recognised or integrated into the government or regional body like the Southern African Development Community, so upon introspection who were we really representing, constituency wise?

There was a shoddy online consultation by the office of the youth envoy for a work plan but I am still of the opinion that the mandate defined had not come from the youth and that was the beginning of all our problems as a structure.

A young lad from the legal department also discussed and explained the benefits we would receive and how our roles would work. We had discussions with some high-level individuals from the AUC who met with us and expressed their excitement.

I remember distinctly shocking people in that meeting when I asked pointedly: “The story has broken around sexual harassment in the AU; there are five females on this team, how will you ensure our safety?”

Shortly thereafter, we had an invitation to the first mission in Seychelles, to work on the Africa plan of action for youth empowerment which would be led by the youth division.

A fellow council member and I attended the meeting, bonded, asked critical questions, gave suggestions and were more than ready to give it our all, even though we did not have fully defined roles yet.

I followed up on items over and over again with no response, only to see the plan rolled out on Twitter later in 2019.

So even when we were included as tokens, our involvement was in essence attending that one meeting, nothing else?

We were also told that we would officially be inaugurated at the AU heads of state summit, which takes place annually, but as the weeks went by and we were approaching February last year we heard nothing.

A couple of us then enquired and were told by the youth division that we actually do not fall under them, they only offer us “technical assistance”.

I’m not sure what that meant and that marked the first de-linking between the council and AU youth division.

The organisation showed total dysfunction, the type that led President Cyril Ramaphosa to leave the AU Summit early this week despite being its chairperson.

Last year, I flew to Addis against my better judgement.

The logistics were a nightmare and I recall being told: “Go and wait at the airport we are busy booking your flight.”

I waited for four hours and was ready to leave until they had booked me on a flight. Other colleagues were booked on flights which had already left.

That morning we arrived at the AUC building but could not enter because we had no accreditation.

Besides the envoy and those with their governments, no other youth council members were allowed into the summit.

More so, we hadn’t been invited to participate in any pre-summit activities with youth groupings; our roles were already clearly amounting to nothing.

This was not quite the so-called inauguration we imagined; in fact the chairperson gave us one lousy mention in his speech and that was about it.

Even the envoy hadn’t been given the opportunity to speak.

When enquiring about our attendance this year, we were told by the AUC that they were not sure if they have a budget for us to attend.

I reached out to the South African government, who is well aware of my appointment, but with no response.

The most ironic and heartbreaking thing is that President Ramaphosa chairs the AU, yet for a second year in a row his youth appointee has sat at home, writing this.

The envoy held a number of sessions of which I had no knowledge of or inclusion in and with appreciation there was a sponsor for us for a side event (a coffee session my colleague hosted).

But there is a bigger picture here. This was a side event which the AUC said it does not recognise so what would be the point of going. I could easily have gone with my colleagues and taken fancy pictures to grace our social media platforms and sing praises of youth engagement, but who would I be kidding?

My colleague in the council (Simon Marot Touloung from South Sudan, which has the youngest population on the continent) and I took the decision to stand resolute, and declined invitations to the summit by partners. We took the stance that we were appointed by the AU and must participate alongside our delegation but the reality is the AU tossed its youth council aside. Others can argue this but we will speak truth to power.

In the build-up to the pre-summit, a virtual youth summit was held but not with one young person on the discussion.

This raises the question: What chance do other youth stand of being involved in the AU, our governments or regional bodies? As ordinary youth not politically aligned, we stand no chance it seems.

The most ironic and heartbreaking thing is that President Ramaphosa chairs the AU, yet for a second year in a row his youth appointee has sat at home, writing this.

Will the government of South Africa and President Ramaphosa address how the youth are being treated in this way or will I be ignored as the lone voice standing up, silenced, threatened, bullied even by my own peers who are meant to be representing youth.

My exclusion is not about me only, but what it represents for youth and their value on this continent.

  • Dr Shakira Choonara is a rising global icon and bold activist. She is an established research-advocacy specialist in public health, gender equality and youth engagement
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