Analysis: Sata unlocks Zambia youth, teaches Africa a lesson

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 23, 2011 12:14 PM
Analysis: Sata unlocks Zambia youth, teaches Africa a lesson

By Ed Cropley

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Veteran Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata built Friday's election upset on an army of young support fired up by promises of no corruption and lots of jobs, a winning formula that may carry lessons for politics across sub-Saharan Africa.

At the ripe old age of 74, the silver-tongued former trade unionist has been mobbed by young supporters whenever he hits the streets of the former British colony's bustling capital. On a visit to a polling station on September 20, the crowd burst into spontaneous chants of "We want change, we want change."

After 20 years of Rupiah Banda's increasingly scandal-plagued Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), many of Zambia's 13 million people were clearly hungry for something new.

But by turning that hunger into a political force potent enough to overthrow an incumbent buoyed by annual economic growth of 6 percent or more, Sata may have written a new page in the African election rule book.

"Sata's victory was won on the backs of disillusioned 'swing voters' and strong support from the one million new youth voter bloc," said Sebastien Spio-Garbrah of DaMina Advisors, a frontier Africa consultancy.

"Banda's thwarted re-election may send signals to other beleaguered incumbents in Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon, Kenya and elsewhere facing tough upcoming re-election battles to focus on the youth vote."

THE YOUNG CONTINENT

Home to one billion people, Africa has the fastest-growing population in any of the world's regions. By the middle of the century, there will be two billion Africans.

One consequence of this rapid growth is that Africa is overwhelmingly a young continent -- its median age is 19.7 years, compared to 32 for the Brazil, Russia, China, India and South Africa BRICS grouping of major emerging powers.

In its most populous nation, Nigeria, 55 of every 100 people are under 20, according to U.N. population researchers.

"Sata has shown that if you manage to tap into that youth, getting them to like you and getting them to come out and vote, you are going to start winning elections," said Simon Freemantle, an economist at Standard Bank in Johannesburg.

Successful mass uprisings in north Africa, driven largely by young men and woman armed with little more than mobile phones, have already set alarm bells ringing south of the Sahara, where many entrenched leaders base their credentials on winning independence rather than building stronger societies.

Sata's victory in a relatively small landlocked nation toward the other end of the continent is only going to reinforce those lessons.

"Capturing the youth vote has been an increasingly important electoral strategy for governments since the return to multi-party democracy across the continent in the 1990s," said Chris Melville of political risk group Menas.

"However, the approach most have taken is that reaching out to the youth is really something you only do during election campaigns."

Even in South Africa, the continent's biggest and most sophisticated economy, one of the most pressing concerns of the ruling ANC is youth unemployment that stands at 50 percent -- 17 years after the end of apartheid.

In his tearful and dignified concession speech, Banda acknowledge the shift in demographics that is occurring across the continent.

"My generation, the generation of the independence struggle, must now give way to new ideas, ideas for the 21st century," he said.

He also set an important precedent on a continent where peaceful transfers of power are all too rare.

Power-sharing governments are in place in Zimbabwe and Kenya after violent and disputed elections, while less than a year ago Ivory Coast descended into civil war when Laurent Gbagbo refused to accept an internationally recognised election defeat.

"Can somebody remind East African leaders that it is possible to hand over power peacefully after free and fair elections?" a reader called Odhiodongo posted on Kenya's Africa Review website at the bottom of an article about Zambia.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)