Preface

in What Politics?
In October of 2016, when chapters of this book were being polished and editors and authors were communicating between Helsinki, Johannesburg, Addis Ababa, Reykjavik and Montreal, some of the exchanges between us capture the conspicuous spirit and circumstances in which this volume ultimately materialized:

Yes I can do the revisions to the chapter. Need the distraction… the country is burning …We’re trying. But even debriefing students is considered insubordination … Trying to action things. Feeling hopeless … They shot one woman nine times in the back today … In bed. Doctor’s orders. It’s a mess. The chapter is coming.

danai mupotsa to elina oinas, October 2016

As you may be aware, there is political unrest in Ethiopia and a state of emergency has been declared in the country. Because of the unrest, the Internet service has been closed in most places in Ethiopia. This has made it difficult for me to look for more literature. I was only able to read the literature sent to me by you.

mulumebet zenebe to leena Suurpää October 2016
The scholarly duties of analysing, writing and ‘arguing’ amount to a painful exercise when conducted amidst university shut-downs and violent chasings and beatings of protesters, in settings flavoured with tear gas and filled with the sound of rubber bullets. In South Africa, for instance, rioting, energized new alliances and sometimes bitter divisions between factions of students and staff have become the order of the day in the mid-2010s. In Ethiopia, academics have limited access to on-line resources due to the state of emergency announced by the government. In both corners of the continent, youthful uprisings signal both hope and serious concerns for future prospects. In addition to the courage to envision and claim alternative futures, strong sentiments of disappointment and fear also run high among young people. National governments are expected to facilitate students’ transitions to adulthood and meaningful citizenship, not let them down, let alone shoot at them. In these circumstances, universities are far from ivory towers detached from reality but, rather, the epicentres of claims-making, societal upheavals and youthful aspirations.

At the outset of compiling this volume in 2012, the world was trying to understand the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East which were soon labelled the ‘Arab Spring’. Prior to this period of political turbulence, which resulted in regime changes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and protracted warfare in Syria and Yemen, it was often claimed that today’s youth are increasingly individualistic and prone to political ‘apathy’, only catering to their private success and consumerist lifestyles, including – or especially – in Africa. In Africa, young people’s discontent and aspirations were seldom voiced through democratic channels, as their political participation was hampered by ‘Big Man politics’, gerontocratic power structures and daily struggles to make ends meet, among other factors. The established research paradigm defined ‘the political’ in such a way that young people were seen as either excluded from politics or not interested in it in the first place.

Against this background, the ‘Arab Spring’ became a mediatized global event that, rather surprisingly, toppled longstanding presidents from power and spread youthful confidence and restlessness like wildfire. Today, it seems obvious that the assumption of lazy, apathetic and self-interested youth is far from accurate. The question is whether the global North wishes to understand what sizzles in the outbursts of riots in Niamey, Harare or Cape Town. This book suggests that scholars and policy-makers in both global North and South should be interested and continuously attuned to the historical events that are unfolding before our eyes. The mere number of young people in Africa today is in itself too high to be ignored. This volume is by no means comprehensive, yet we believe that it is a contribution to better understanding of the lives of young people not only in Africa but in today’s globalized world.

A constant predicament for African scholars, who may want to pursue their own research interests, is that they are often overburdened by international collaborative projects. Their efforts to spend their time meaningfully are frequently thwarted by schedules and agendas dictated by others. Importantly, research outcomes are often designed to serve the needs of policy-makers and consultants rather than their own academic ambitions. Furthermore, reporting on political unrest against incumbent authorities at the local level – be they university administrators, the police apparatus or the ruling party – may easily put the researchers at risk. In addition to these prevailing obstacles, there are subtle mechanisms within academia that prevent academics from publicly taking sides in local conflicts and power struggles. Activist researchers may end up being side-lined and accused of lacking academic rigor, of being biased, or labelled as difficult, crazy, subjective or, simply, too ‘political’. There are very few ‘academic’ means to counter accusations of this nature. Staying quietly in the ranks and conducting evaluations that bring in income is all too often the only remaining alternative.

Scholars based in universities in the global North have better resources to dominate academic debates, a state of affairs which potentially leads to entrenched biases and the neglect of local struggles and understandings of what counts as political in different contexts. This book has far from escaped this dilemma of unequal and uneven knowledge production, and we are acutely aware of the problem’s being further heightened in social research in Africa that aims to bring to the fore the perspectives of young people themselves. For us, one way to address this contested issue has been to practise reflexive and transparent positioning in each case, and to be as receptive as possible as to the issues that matter for the lives of young informants. It has also been refreshing to collaborate from positions far from the centres of global knowledge production. During the process we noticed that this volume is an outcome of on-going dialogue between somewhat peripheral locations, such as Helsinki in Finland and Kitgum in Northern Uganda, or Uppsala in Sweden and Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina Faso.

We are extremely grateful to the authors, who kept going through the years, regardless of the abundance of disruptions at several levels. But first and foremost we wish to thank the young informants, whose lives, experiences, practices and analyses inform the discussions in this book. The young people in Benin, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Ghana, Kenia, Niger, Somaliland, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda, United States and Zimbabwe are the interlocutors and co-producers of the knowledge presented here.

Furthermore, there are several institutions and organizations to which we owe gratitude for enabling us to finish this book. Firstly, the Academy of Finland funded the research project Youth and Political Engagement in Contemporary Africa (2012–2016, project nr 258235) under whose auspices this volume was compiled. In addition, the chapters were developed during workshops in collaboration with the University of Helsinki, the Finnish Youth Research Network, the Finnish Society for Development Research, the Finnish University Partnership for International Development (UniPID), the World Social Forum, the Nordic Network of African Childhood and Youth Research (NoNACYR, especially Tatek Abebe), the Nordic Africa Institute and the University of Witwatersrand.

We wish to thank a few individuals who have been essential in the making of this book. Vincenzo Cicchelli, the anonymous reviewers and staff at Brill offered their support and invaluable comments on the manuscript. Marie-Louise Karttunen at Emelle’s Editing Services is a prompt and highly professional copy-editor working to a tight schedule. Finally, Ella Alin acted as editorial assistant during the whole process, and her contribution was invaluable.

The editors

12 February 2017

Helsinki, Finland

What Politics?

Youth and Political Engagement in Africa

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