Memory is a weapon. Since 2011, the beginning of each year demands from me that I invoke the memory of one of Africa’s most influential individuals in the new millennium. We were born a day apart, albeit into different worlds. We never met, except through the pain inflicted on us by the harsh circumstances we both lived through on this continent. The bond that exists – on my part – was forged by our shared hopes, dreams and aspirations for the youth of Africa; a segment of society that is made of people who just want to be allowed to live and express themselves.

But Mohamed Bouazizi is alive no more.

The other part of the bond is held by pain – the pain of a life lost, dreams shattered and youth that keeps fading into nothingness. Not because it chooses to, but because where it seeks to thrive, punishment and death thrive with impunity. Young, gifted and broken.

I am writing this on 4 January 2017. It marks six years since the young Tunisian died of burn wounds after he had literally ignited what the world came to know as the Arab Spring. A fruit and vegetable vendor, Bouazizi immolated himself in protest after suffering humiliation – for the umpteenth time – at the hands of police officials who had confiscated his goods, ostensibly because he was operating without a trading licence.

A photo taken on November 15, 2011 shows a poster featuring Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruitseller whose self-immolation sparked the revolution that ousted a dictator in Yunisia and ignited the Arab Spring. Photo: ANP/AFP/ Fethi Belaid
A photo taken on November 15, 2011 shows a poster featuring Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruitseller whose self-immolation sparked the revolution that ousted a dictator in Yunisia and ignited the Arab Spring. Photo: ANP/AFP/ Fethi Belaid

Yesterday, I received e-mail communication from the Directorate of Information and Communication at the African Union (AU). It was the New Year message from Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the AU Commission. These were the opening lines:

The year 2016 has been particularly fruitful for the African Union Commission as it continues to work hard at the implementation of the first 10-year plan of Africa’s Agenda 2063. We [are] very pleased to see AU Member States and Regional Economic Communities intensify Agenda 2063 domestication. Certainly, a lot more work still needs to be done, to translate these aspirations to make a difference in the lives of Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora.

To expect an institution that cannot resolve its own electoral processes, as we saw with the failure to appoint a new AU Commission Chairperson, to deal with electoral challenges elsewhere is, perhaps, to hope for the impossible.

The inherent optimism is understandable but also highly misleading. 2016 was the year that began and ended with the AU exhibiting its incompetence in dealing with democratic deficits both internally and in The Gambia, for example. That is not fruitfulness, it is stinking rot! Hence, to expect an institution that cannot resolve its own electoral processes, as we saw with the failure to appoint a new AU Commission Chairperson, to deal with electoral challenges elsewhere is, perhaps, to hope for the impossible.

File: Outgoing Chairperson of the AU Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Photo: Reuters
File: Outgoing Chairperson of the AU Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Photo: Reuters

What really struck me, however, was paragraph six of the message:

As we begin 2017, the theme is ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through investment in Youth’. The youth constitute over 70% of the African population and remain a critical part of our most precious resources. We look forward to working with Regional Economic Communities, Civil Society, AU Organs, Member States and all partners in furthering the youth agenda.

The 2013 Addis Ababa Declaration on Population and Development in Africa Beyond 2014 inspired this theme. It is one of the best thought-out but most poorly distributed instruments of the AU. In Articles 21 and 22 of the declaration, African governments, through the AU, undertook to:

Provide decent work and appropriate skills for young people through effective policies and programmes that generate employment and sustainable work, consistent with international conventions and regional declarations, to ensure higher social, economic and human development returns from the demographic dividend; and

Maximize the benefits of the demographic dividend by investing in creating opportunities and a supportive environment for innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship for young people to create and access jobs and realize their full potential.

South African teenagers listen to talks during a Youth Health Festival on Youth Day in Cape Town, South Africa 16 June 2016. Photo: ANP/EPA/Nic Bothma
South African teenagers listen to talks during a Youth Health Festival on Youth Day in Cape Town, South Africa 16 June 2016. Photo: ANP/EPA/Nic Bothma

The AU and the death of the Arab Spring

When the declaration was adopted in 2013, Mohamed Bouazizi had been dead for two years and the so-called Arab Spring had sprung out of control, with civil war in Libya, for example, replacing what were initially popular uprisings in some Arab countries. Also, there were reversals of democratic gains taking place in countries like Egypt. It was a mess – and still is, to be sure. A large part of these outcomes can be attributed to the inefficacies of the AU itself, which have caused many young Africans to be displaced, if not dead.

Of course, a 27-year-old Bouazizi would not have seen all of this coming when he elected to protest by immolating himself. All he wanted, all he dreamt of, was a better life for himself, his mother and his siblings. He was not asking for too much – just room to sell his fruit and vegetables so that he could earn a decent, if not dignified, living. Yet, the government of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali repeatedly responded to the young man’s pursuits with violence, until he could not take the abuse anymore.

The government of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali repeatedly responded to the young man’s pursuits with violence, until he could not take the abuse anymore

 And so, on 17 December 2010, after his fruit and vegetable goods were confiscated by a police officer whom he could not afford to bribe, Mohamed Bouazizi pleaded with the police officer and other senior authorities to get his goods back, but they could not be moved to care. Reports say they scoffed at him and the ‘arresting’ police officer might even have spat in his face. Humiliated, Bouazizi set himself alight and in doing so, ignited a revolution not just in Tunisia but in several other countries as well.

A photograph made available on 18 December 2013 shows Tunisian protesters holding placard with photos depicting killed secular opposition figure Mohammed Brahmi during a protest to mark the third anniversary of the revolution, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, 17 December 2013. Young fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze on 17 December 2010 in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, sparking a nation-wide uprising that led 28 days later to the ousting of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, and later to regional revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring. Photo: EPA/STR
A photograph made available on 18 December 2013 shows Tunisian protesters holding placard with photos depicting killed secular opposition figure Mohammed Brahmi during a protest to mark the third anniversary of the revolution, in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, 17 December 2013. Young fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself ablaze on 17 December 2010 in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, sparking a nation-wide uprising that led 28 days later to the ousting of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali, and later to regional revolutions of the so-called Arab Spring. Photo: EPA/STR

By the time Ben Ali’s regime woke up to the impact of Bouazizi’s brave action – widespread protests across the country – it was too late. Last-ditch attempts by the regime to show sympathy and begin to address the concerns of young people like Bouazizi proved futile. Not even Ben Ali’s hospital visit to the young man could alter the course of history. Inevitably, the regime collapsed and Ben Ali and has family fled to Saudi Arabia.

On 4 January 2011, 18 days after his self-immolation, Mohammed Bouazizi succumbed to burn wounds that had eaten into more than 90% of his body. The 27-year-old died, three years shy of his 30th birthday.

The daily reality of state-sanctioned violence

Across Africa, Bouazizi’s experience at the hands of authorities is a daily reality for many young people who are trying to live their dreams. Despite massive provocation from state-sanctioned institutions, these youths continue to hope for brighter days in their respective countries. They carry the same spirit that Bouazizi carried – hard work, innovation and a sense of duty towards both nation and family. But what are they getting in return?

They are getting pushed into embarking on perilous voyages across the Mediterranean Sea, where death awaits their arrival. Close to 4 000 deaths at sea were recorded in 2016 alone. They are tear-gassed, arrested and detained without charge when they take to the streets and demand better lives. They are forced into unforgiving debt traps where freedom is not the freedom imagined by liberators but imprisonment, quite often at the hands of those very same liberators.

A boat with immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Italy. Source: currierimmigrationzone.it
A boat with immigrants in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Italy. Source: currierimmigrationzone.it

They also get cheap and empty slogans. ‘Health for All!’ ‘Housing for All!’ ‘Education for All!’ Sometimes, a bit of imagination is displayed and the slogan goes: ‘Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through investment in Youth!’

The AU recognises that at least 70% of the African population is made up of young people. However, the average age of presidents and heads of state who will gather later this month for the first AU Summit of the year is 70 and up! So, who exactly is going to be the champion of the stated theme of the year? Doddering and senile men or the young, animated and energetic men and women of our continent?

The AU is good with slogans and themes that sound right but often achieve very little in the end. In 2017, it has given itself a huge task by turning the spotlight on the youth. This might just be the year that the ghost of Mohamed Bouazizi and those of many other brutalised young people return to Africa and demand better treatment for young people.

For young Africans to look into the future, therefore, they may have to first look into the past and recognise not only the pain suffered by the likes of Bouazizi but also the injustice in perpetuating conditions that draw fellow young people towards an early death.

The AU has asked for it. Young Africans, let us give it to them!