A Country that loses its youth, fails its future

“Youth are the foundation for any country’s hope. When given the right opportunities, they can contribute to long term workforce constituting the sustainability of a nation’s achievements.”

Rwanda still has lingering memories of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi which claimed over a million lives. Although one would say that the adults were the master mind of the killing, the youth played a major role especially in its implementation through participating in the organized killing squads and committing the worst atrocities associated to this.

While questioning why youth?--one may think about the conditions that lead to the high involvement of youth into dangerous acts like the genocide. Many argue the fact that youth were manipulated, taught to hate their own fellows- over and over again. In addition, the fact that youth are often excluded from the decision-making table, places them in a vulnerable position to question the decisions made upon them and turn into mere implementers even against their own conviction, even if this may seem as a simplistic conclusion.

In Rwanda today, youth are consistently mobilized to become active and responsible citizens. The constitution of 2003 as amended in 2015 offers a lot of opportunities for youth to participate in the governance of the country by providing them with representations at various levels-from the smallest administrative entity to the National Parliament-chamber of deputies. Many observers have even noted that majority of leaders in Rwanda may have taken over their positions, or at least begun serving the country, when they were still youth, on top of the list, the president of the Republic, Paul Kagame. Notably, Rwanda has one of the youngest populations in the world with over 60% being between the ages of 15 to 35 years.

With such an inspiration, one may wonder why across many Rwandan hills, youth still complain about being left out in setting the national priorities. For the last 15 years, Never Again Rwanda has been creating spaces for the youth to dialogue about the issues which affect them. The spaces for dialogue and debate have an aim to empower the youth with critical thinking skills and enable them to analyze issues of importance as they contribute to the sustainable peace and development.

While reflecting about key challenges to youth participation in decision-making processes, a number of youth highlighted the lack of confidence on their side that hinder effective contribution. On the other hand, youth say lack of confidence may be caused by negative attitudes and deliberate exclusion by some leader towards youth views and opinions.

While participating in the Never Again Rwanda’s round table discussion in Kabaya Sector, Ngororero district recently, a young woman of approximately the age of 25 said, “Lack of self-confidence among youth is quite often caused by negative attitudes of local leaders towards youth in various circumstances. Most of the time, they undermine our ideas and opinions which causes young people’s self-confidence to fade away.” “Leaders should change their attitudes in order to work collaboratively with young people.” She added.

Participants in a Never Again Rwanda’s forum recently complained that there have been opportunities offered by the Government of Rwanda’s policies but when it comes to local leaders, they do not fully expose those to youth so they can be fully utilized. “Local leaders should hear our voices, value our opinions and put on the table available opportunities that can empower us to become active citizens.” Recommended a young participant in a recent meeting in Ngororero district.

Irrespective of any odds, those who like meeting and chatting with youth have seen ones who are highly skilled, able to articulate their views and analyze their needs and priorities. It is a disappointment that youth mention that there are still some leaders, who think their role should be limited to energizing the participants, or sing in meetings-commonly known in Rwanda as “gushyiraho morale” a practice of signing in meetings to increase participants’ energy.

Since 2017, Never Again Rwanda hosts round-table discussions with youth and local leaders to facilitate a dialogue between youth and local authorities about how to address the challenges standing in the way of youth participation. Among the bottle necks expressed by the leaders who participate, there is limited understanding on the concept of youth participation, a point that may be seen as controversial given Rwanda’s legal and policy framework that has ensured that youth are actively involved into all stages of governance.  “I changed my approach after completing the training on youth participation offered by Never Again Rwanda. Every time I organize a meeting, I check the presence of youth and ask them to contribute to the agenda before we move forward. It has been leading to good results”. Said one of the Executive Secretaries of a cell in Save Sector, Gisagara District.

The manner of looking at youth in a negative manner is not among leaders alone, also, elder people have continued to accuse youth of failing to use their skills in the right way, claiming that they are short sighted, only focusing on short term enjoyment.. “We cannot trust people who abuse drugs to be our leaders. Youth should refocus and change their behaviors so that we can trust them more” Said a lady in her late 50’s in community dialogue organized by the youth in Nyabihu District.

It’s good to note that Government has ensured that youth are included in the advisory councils at all levels. However, many participants in NAR spaces including those members of advisory councils have reiterated the fact that those do not necessarily represent youth’s interests, and as a result, issues relating to youth needs and priorities keep being distorted in the major decision-making platforms. One of the participants said “Youth concerns are most of the times not on the local leaders’ list of priorities. What makes it hard is that the youth leaders who formally represent their peers in the advisory councils are not valued for their opinions and interests they stand for.  They are silenced by other council members as they think national interests dominate over youth priorities.” If this becomes a common practice, the country may be risking to loose youth on the table which can eventually lead to high risks.

Recently, the President of the Republic of Rwanda called upon youth to participate in politics so that they can learn to be good leaders. The president told youth they should not dodge politics and he believes one way is to participate in the country governance.  He said “Politics will have something to do with you so you better have something to do with politics”. “I am not telling you how, I can only urge you to get involved in politics, and good politics”. He added.

Whichever side one may take, youth participation into the decision-making, be it at the national level or local level should continue to be nurtured. Youth need to be coached and mentored to be good leaders. The government has played a foundational role but more needs to be done to ensure that the seed that was planted is enabled to grow. That requires the efforts of all the actors including the youth, the civil society and the government to address the current challenges which I believe are easier than the distance walked.

Never Again Rwanda empowers the population with a particular focus on youth to become active citizens.