According to the United Nations Population Division, in 2015 there were 1.2 billion youth in the world ages 15-24. 226 million of this age group lives in Africa, accounting for 19% of the global youth population. In the past decade we have seen an emergence of young people in politics, all over the world. We need not look far, as neighbouring African countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and many more have Ambassadors, Senators and Governors 35 years old and below.
On The Osasu Show, which is my weekly television programme that focuses on sustainable development in Africa, predominantly Nigeria, I interviewed Kenya’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ambassador Yvonne Khamati who was only 22 years old when she was appointed to the East African Parliament. This was quite a revealing interview. Here is what she had to say about Youth Inclusion in Governance and Developing Africa.
OSASU: So you were one of the youngest East African parliamentarians, can you tell us more about your experience and how your experiences led you to this role?
AMBASSADOR: Well, to start with I actual went for an office, a national office, elective for parliament in Nairobi where I lost very badly and I was beaten up, beaten in the polls and beaten up physically and hospitalised because the election ground at that time was very hard especially for a young woman without thugs and the experience in the city, that has changed quite a bit.
Later on I was nominated to the East Africa parliament, I was 22 years old making me easily the youngest at that time. I’m hoping (nominations are coming next year) that we will lobby to have another young person, perhaps much younger than I was then, to get into the East African parliament.
It was an exciting time, the current speaker also served with me at that time, he is 35 years old. The speaker of East African Legislative Assembly; Honourable Dan Kidega from Uganda. So it was not just the Kenya thing, it was a regional push to have young people within. I then left the East Africa parliament to become an Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Kenya to Ethiopia and the African union. I was 24 years, again, the youngest in the region. I think I am still the youngest serving Ambassador in Africa, I am now 33. Hopefully other countries will see what I have done for the past nine years and also go ahead and appoint young people knowing that we are extremely able and capable.
OSASU: What are some challenges that you have faced so far?
AMBASSADOR: We still have a lot of patriarchal expectations within the society, so it hard being a woman, it is harder being a young person, it is extremely hard being single and these are challenges that we face every single day. We have to perhaps be twice or three times as better than all our colleagues and our competitors, so that has been a challenge; having to proof that what is important is what is from my shoulders and above and not my shoulders and below. Every single day I meet people that are chauvinistic, that are patriarchal, that are sexist, that are racist, that are difficult and that expect you to prove yourself over and over and over again but we have to do it so that the young women, the young people, those that are coming behind us will find it easier to surmount the same challenges that we have gone through.
OSASU: What are some of your routines that you do to kind of ease the blow and ease your transition into making people think okay I can do the job just as good as a man will do it and I am very capable of the position that I have been placed in?
AMBASSADOR: Is not as hard anymore because I have been doing it, I have written the post card and I’m wearing the T-shirt that I have managed to serve at the Kenya Embassy to Ethiopia, I have served in our permanent mission of Kenya to United Nations Nairobi, I served at the Kenya Embassy to Somalia which I can assure you was extremely challenging especially looking at issues that are going on in Somalia with terrorism, with Al shabab, with attacks that we have been having in Kenya also. It was one of the most challenging missions and also there was a religion issue, Somalia is predominantly Muslim and I am a Christian but I believe that the president believed I was up to the task and now in my new posting at the Kenya mission to Nairobi, I am looking forward to serving again second time round.
This is my forth posting, I think it is enough to say that we have succeeded; if anybody wanted to know that a woman is capable, now they know, if anybody wanted to know that a young person is capable, they have seen it. So in the last appointment that was made his Excellency President Kenyatta did appoint a 35 years old lady as an Ambassador. She is serving in Zimbabwe as high commissioner and also 33 years old young man as a permanent secretary in the ministry of infrastructure, so you see it not just a tokenism where a young person is given a ministry like youth or gender. Infrastructure is key in terms of achieving vision 2030 and all the goals that are set and it not only in Kenya I mean look at the sport minister in South Africa Fikile Mbalula and the great work he is doing. In Tanzania we have just seen in the last election 40 years old ran for president and challenged the state quo, unfortunately he did not make it but did put up a pretty good fight and he is the current minister for environment. These examples are everywhere in the region, I think what is important is that young people must come out and tell their stories.
There have been many young achievers that we don’t highlight and showcase what it is they have done. These are stories that will change narrative, these are the stories that will change the way people feel and think when they think that positions of power or leadership are positions for old people; older women and older men.
One of the things that young people don’t have is organisation unlike women, lucky for me I’m both a young person and a woman which is a blessing and could also be seen otherwise. One of the things we did, we organised ourselves as young people especially seeing the largest number ever in the Kenya parliament of young people, members of parliament between the ages of 18-35, sitting together we decided what can we do for young people, so Honorable Sakaja came up with a bill on procurement, public procurement, stating that 30% of all government procurement must go to young people between the ages of 18-35.
There are banks and there is a youth fund that is out to ensure that young people can then access the funding and get support in managing the project and programs. Please note when we talk about 30% funding, I am not saying that the young people come to buy flowers, pen and stationaries. It is not tokenism, it is 30% whether it is in the ministry of energy, it is 30% whether it is in the ministry of infrastructure and transport, whether it is in the ministry of housing and obviously young people get opportunities to play in the big league with the big boys and girls.
So we need to see more young people coming out to run for office not to be scared and think it is a dirty game, that it is a hard game, because once you are in office whoever is in charge has to deal with you. Once you are in parliament you have a voice and you can ensure there is legislation to safeguard the interest of women, young people, people living with disabilities but you have to be inside.
OSASU: How do we change the connotation that you need a lot of money in order to run for office?
AMBASSADOR: You don’t need money, you need organisation. To be in leadership you just need to think smart and it starts from the village, it starts from the grassroots. So the first thing is young people must take responsibility of their destiny, of their future, of their country and sit on the table. You cannot just mobilise vote and be used as security and run around vehicles carrying campaign posts and wearing T-shirt as postal boys and girls and forget that your vote is the one who is going to put someone else in. So we can’t blame anyone else other than ourselves.
OSASU: They are clause in the constitution that says you can’t run for a certain office till you are a certain age and I believe it is 35 for a Governor. How do we mobilise our parliament to ensure that clause is taken away and as long as you can vote you can run for office?
AMBASSADOR: I know that there are many young and progressive people in the Nigerian parliament and I would hope also at the gubernatorial level. Those young people that are in those positions are the people young people should reach out to help them draft the bills that will go to parliament.
We had the same issue in Kenya where to run for president one must be 35 but our question was if am old enough to vote, I am old enough to run for office and that was changed but it was changed during our constitutional review process where we engaged and we read.
You know young people sometimes we don’t like the hard path; we want microwave solutions where everything is done ready to eat meal. Yet in Nigeria I know you guys love pounded yam and Eba so you know the whole procedures of getting real food here takes hard work, commitment and it doesn’t happen overnight.
OSASU: What processes and procedures can our youth put in place to ensure that Africa reaches it potential?
AMBASSADOR: First, young people need to realise that the real opportunity is in Africa, the real opportunity is about being African. We are blessed with abundant of natural resources from oil to gas to diamonds, and minerals. The greatest capacity we have is human capacity and human resource. Once you embrace who you are, where we are and remember where we have come from as a region then we can turn Africa to the kind of continent it should be and it deserves to be.
But it starts from taking responsibilities because old people don’t go to war, old people don’t carry guns, the Boko Haram, Al Shabab from Somalia to Nigeria, the young people that were perpetuating Xenophobic attacks in South Africa, those are young people, that is us. We must take responsibility of our future and participate in politics; participate on the table. Not as hecklers, not as those who put up posters on the street but as players so that our voices will be heard.
You can watch the full interview here