DAKAR/KINSHASA (Reuters) - Four years after launching a campaign to get young Senegalese to vote, journalist Fadel Barro found himself in a dark prison cell over 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from home in Democratic Republic of Congo, accused of fomenting insurrection.
His journey and brief incarceration in March show how youth movements have linked up across francophone Africa to push for change in a region still dominated by “Big Men” leaders, and how some deeply entrenched governments are resisting.
Barro and two rappers founded their Y’en a marre movement in 2011, worried that youth in Senegal were uninspired by politics and that the octogenarian president might win a third term in their west African country.
What began as a local idea has inspired pro-democracy groups in other countries such as Burkina Faso to tap into frustration with traditional opposition politicians who have failed to challenge effectively those leaders who overstay their welcome.
Barro was arrested alongside foreign and local activists at a gathering calling for Congolese youth to mobilize at a time of another possible third term bid, this time by President Joseph Kabila.
“There is an internationalization of African youth who are dreaming and thinking in the same way,” said Barro, wearing his trademark scarf and woolly hat, back in Senegal after spending three days in detention in Kinshasa.
Y’en a marre played a key role in voting Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade out of power in 2012.
It went on to collaborate with Balai Citoyen, a youth group at the heart of protests in Burkina Faso that ousted President Blaise Compaore last year when he tried to rejig the constitution to extend his 27-year rule.
But similar movements encouraged by these successes face tougher challenges this year in African nations with governments that have hardened military support.
Congo has cracked down since protests in January. These had forced the government to abandon a reform which opposition leaders said was a back-door attempt to keep Kabila in power by delaying elections due next year when he is supposed to step down.
The event that landed Barro and Balai Citoyen member Oscibi Johann in the Kinshasa cell, accused of being “teachers of insurrection”, was the launch of a youth movement, Filimbi. Members of an affiliated group in Congo’s violent east, Lucha, were also rounded up by authorities.
“They don’t want Filimbi and Lucha to even exist in Congo,” Barro said. “But they cannot imprison hope. They will fail. Youth will continue to mobilize.”
U.S.-BACKED, AFRICAN LED
Pro-democracy movements are not new in Africa but their recent success has been helped by technology making it easier for young people to see what is happening in other countries and make contact online.
While elections take place regularly across the continent, Africa’s youth has been frustrated by veteran leaders’ attempts to cling to power by bending the rules.
“All we expect from our leaders is the understanding that whatever was accepted 10, 20 years ago no longer goes,” said Assane Dioma Ndiaye, a human rights lawyer in Dakar who advises at the International Criminal Court. “What happened in Senegal and Burkina will happen... elsewhere if leaders maintain their efforts to stay in power.”
Gilles Yabi, founder of the citizen think tank WATHI in West Africa, noted how popular musicians have collaborated with journalists, lawyers and even bankers as robust economic growth fosters a young, professional class.
“There are singers and rappers but also professionals who have both the means and the ability to articulate a political discourse,” he said. “That makes a difference. It gives them some clout.”
While the best known Balai Citoyen members are a rapper called Smockey and a reggae artist called Sams’K le Jah, lawyer Guy Herve Kam is their spokesman.
Filimbi’s leaders include Floribert Anzuluni, until recently a director of the pan-African Ecobank in Congo, and Miyangu Kiakwama, an agro-businessman and the son of a parliamentarian.
The youth leaders have captured the attention of Washington: President Barack Obama met Barro when he visited Senegal in 2013. The U.S. embassy in Senegal has also worked with Y’en a marre under civic engagement and election monitoring programs.
In Congo, the Filimbi event was co-sponsored by the U.S. government and a diplomat was among those rounded up, prompting Kinshasa to accuse the United States of meddling in its affairs. Washington defended its support for people it called respected, non-partisan activists.
Barro played down the international backing youth groups are getting, saying they were mainly self-financing. “They are driven by their own problems,” he said. “They belong to a hyper-connected world and they simply don’t think it is normal for their country not to function properly.”
To succeed, youth movements need a united opposition. Barro made contact with a youth group in Togo before presidential elections in April but he said divisions among Togo’s politicized civil society groups made cooperation impossible.
With the opposition divided, President Faure Gnassingbe swept comfortably to a third term amid low turnout, taking his family’s control over Togo toward its sixth decade.
In the capital of Congo Republic, Brazzaville, just across the Congo river from Kinshasa, rapper Martial Pa’Nucci is targeting President Denis Sassou Nguesso, who is widely expected to seek constitutional change to run for re-election next year.
His songs lambasting poverty have upset the authorities, forcing him to live virtually in hiding. But they have yet to mobilize the young to oppose the reelection of a man who has ruled the oil-producing nation for most of the last 35 years.
“There are youth who complain: ‘We suffer, there isn’t work, the schools don’t work, we have a failing education system’,” he said. “But tomorrow, these are the same people you’re going to find in T-shirts chanting the government’s slogans.”
Pa’Nucci said it cost the government as little as 400 CFA francs ($1) to buy support. Many people are afraid of the security service and are made cautious by memories of ethnically-fueled civil war in the 1990s, he said.
“The fear is visible on the people’s faces,” he said.
Tresor Nzila, the executive director of the Congolese Observatory of Human Rights, said young people believed opposition leaders were too close to the ruling elite.
“If at night, (opposition leaders) are together with the men in power, and during the day, they pretend to be opponents, (young people) are not going to mobilize,” he said.
Editing by Daniel Flynn and David Stamp