Ahead of International Youth Day, AllAfrica‘s Nontobeko Mlambo spoke to Aya Chebbito and shed light on the state of youth leadership and activism in Africa. Chebbi is the founder of the Nala Feminist Collective and was the first-ever African Union Youth Envoy between 2018 to 2021.
Please tell us who you are and what you do.
My name is Aya Chebbi, I am a Pan-African feminist. I served as the first African Union Youth Envoy between 2018 to 2021 and now I am building Nala Feminist Collective, which is a multi-generational platform of African women, politicians, and activists working towards or striving towards the liberation of women and girls.
What state of activism in Africa today especially among the youth?
The state of youth activism really came to flourish in 2010 with a series of uprisings on the continent, actually, even though the world was focused on the Middle East, Syria, and Yemen but we had ‘mouvement citoyen’ in Burkina Faso. We had “Y’En A Marre!” In Senegal, followed by a lot of protests across the continent and then that’s evolved continued and evolved, in 2019 we had the Sudan revolution, the 2018 Algeria revolution, and Fees Must Fall in South Africa, and so on. That’s not only activism, activism is not just protest, activism is being involved in shaping governance, opening space, or watchdogging government. There are all sorts of things that young people are engaged in right now on the continent.
I think the general trend is that youth want change and youth are not satisfied with how the current African states are functioning. And they are identifying the problems, they’re putting on the table solutions. They are challenging the status quo and I think that’s the state of youth activism. And then it’s very transnational as well. It’s not Ghanaians doing their thing, Tanzanians doing their thing … there’s a lot of transnational organising, which I think reminds us of the 60s and 70s, where there was a lot of cross-border organising. So I think that also makes us think of Pan-Africanism and what does it mean for this generation?
During your time working for the African Union, what did you find to be the challenges that youth find in participating in the peacebuilding process and politics in Africa?
First of all, the first challenge is the narrative, young people or young Africans are portrayed as the problem, not the solutions. young Africans are portrayed as subjects, not drivers of development, portrayed as gun holders and not peacebuilders. So there is this always a narrative around how this statistic of youth which is a problem and even when people talk about youth bulge, this big demographic, it’s not in the sense that this is the labor force, this is the innovation force, this is the voting power as well but it’s talked about as ‘now we need to find jobs for all of these growing population’ and in all of these statistics is about numbers and it is because, before end of the century, half of the world will be African, like one in three people will be African. so it is something to think about, but the narrative is an issue because it’s the narrative of we have this huge problem of this demographic and what do we do with them?
So that’s one and then two, obviously, exclusion from power. So youth participation when we didn’t have participation at all 10 years ago. So because of the advocacy in the youth movement now we are in the space, but participation is still tokenistic, participation is still extractive of youth, and expertise, and experiences are exploitative of their lived experiences. People do surveys or do consultations, it’s always like, let’s get information from you, and knowledge from you. But we don’t know where does that knowledge go? It’s not credited to the young Africans, and so on. But then on politics and leadership, obviously it’s not that youth are not interested in politics. they do not subscribe to how politics works to partisan politics and how it is. It’s patriarchal. The system is very old and traditional and youth are organising the movement to move away. That’s the current situation or challenge.
What needs to change for them to want to participate in politics?
They want to, the issue is not whether they want to, the issue is the institutions are not built to be inclusive of youth or any other group. I mean, you look at people with disability, you look at refugees, displaced people, all of the marginalised groups, the structure of the system as it is right now and the African state is built around exclusion, it is built around people infiltrating the system that worked for them and that benefit them. As we say state capture, power is in the hands of a few people who come from a very homogeneous group, a certain religious group, a certain ethnic group, or a certain ideology. So it’s not inclusive of any other group including young people, and we say young people because it’s the largest demographic population. That’s why it has more attention. But if we look at other layers of marginalised groups, the system is very exclusive.
I do not think anyone between 18 and 30 doesn’t want to live happily and you know, have a good job with dignity, be creative, and live their life every day with joy. I don’t think anybody would like to see their country in a war, they want better for the countries, and they want better for the continent. They are just not in structures or ecosystems that make them flourish. A lot of people say youth should occupy their space. There is a lot of pressure on us to do stuff other than saying the system is broken. And you left it for us like that as the older generation. How are we going to do it together now? This is not only our responsibility, it is our shared responsibility, you have a stake in this because you created the system. So don’t expect us to just occupy the system without any structure or conducive environment to do that.
You have mentioned in the past that after a protest or revolution, there should be at least a 100-day plan, how important is having this plan?
I think transitions in Africa and we have many of them that are not planned, especially from movements. I mean, governments will sit together and actors, United Nations, African Union, regional actors will sit together and come up with a plan when things happen because also is unexpected for them. They don’t think young people will succeed. But young people as well when you are in a movement you are immersed in this cause and mission and you have one enemy, there is authoritarianism, there is dictatorship, there is corruption. And you don’t know when you will win that battle and so when you win it is a shock and you wonder what’s next and you never plan for that and that is the 100 days plan I was talking about, I think any youth movements should whether they win that or not should have a 100-day plan. There should be a plan for what to do for the first three months. There is a vacuum after leadership leaves.
That is why we see a lot of coups on the continent.There are a lot of other sorts of dictatorship that rise like in Tunisia the Muslim Brotherhood was rising at the time because there was space for it. So a lot of forces will come and hijack that space which was led initially by these activists who had the vision and the aspiration for their countries, and they know exactly what they want and the Africa they want but they don’t have that plan? How does that translate in political systems? How are we now going to be organised either in movements or political parties? How do we envision the election to be, what system do we envision it to be, is it presidential, is it parliamentarian, or semi-presidential, what is it? When we are already in a revolution, things go fast that you can not even propose your solution and then when you do, you are dismissed as young and not knowledgeable, you didn’t know anything. Now we are savvy politicians. Thank you for what you did. But now step aside, it’s for us to lead.
What are you most proud of since you started working as a youth activist?
Definitely proud of our generation the millennials because we changed the course of history. We started the first 21st-century peaceful revolutions. We challenged the state as it is right now. Everybody was fine with it, and we were going by our days, and that really inspire change across the world, not only in Africa. I am proud of how innovative our generation is in trying to be creative around these oppressed spaces, these closed spaces, these misogynist spaces you face every day but yet we rise and find a creative way to do it.
And then I’m really proud of how it’s slowly coming. But we have more and more solidarity among the youth movement. Especially young women I’m really proud of where young women are at today. The struggle for gender equity has been long, and I think a lot of the young women, young African women of our generation are really disrupting the space, are really showing up. I’m proud of all of these people and because of all of those I work with and marched within the same mission, I am also motivated to continue because it’s not easy.
Even though we challenge the older generation, it is our ancestors that did it first, I always asked myself if they’ve done it, I can do it too. If they survived colonialism then how can I not. I come from that power, energy and resilience.I am inspired by these older women who continue to fight until today, whether they are chiefs in their communities, whether there are in rural areas, whether former heads of states, they’re still fighting for Africa’s agenda, and they are in their 80s and 90s and they’re trying to push.
What do you think is fueling Xenophobic Acts in Tunisia?
I always call it Afrophobia. I think there is a discussion that is not happening in North Africa and in Tunisia, and it’s been there subtly, I’ve been talking about this since 2011. I wrote so much about racism and Afrophobia. It’s there but lately, it showed as a state Afrophobia, so the state came out and said, oh, we need to kick out all of these black migrants. But the way black migrants or even black Tunisians live, black bodies in general, who are in Tunisia, they suffer everyday from racism, they suffer every day from otherism. And I think that’s that is why pan-Africanism is important and that’s why it’s important to have this blackness conversation.
What does it mean to be African? That’s why its important to organise the Pan-African way because once you understand, we all come from the same struggle, we have the same destiny. We have similar structure, we contextualise yes, and each country has its own but I would identify the African first it shouldn’t be our tribe and our small clan. All of that is our diversity but what are we fighting for is one continent. I’m not going to be liberated in Tunisia if you’re not liberated in South Africa, this concept of my liberation is your liberation should be above how we treat other each other based on skin color or religion or ethnicity or family name or whatever it is. We do have this and we need to deal with it before it spreads across the continent. Today its Tunisia, yesterday it was South Africa, what’s going to happen tomorrow and it is subtle, Ethiopia as well. A lot of countries need to have this conversation about blackness and colorism. We have to have an honest conversation about it.