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For three years running, NewSETA has been on the frontlines of a campaign to lower the voting age in Cameroon in a project known as the “VOTE 18” CAMPAIGN. In the Q&A that follows, the Executive Director responds to some of the questions and concerns raised about NewSETA’s call to extend voting rights to 18 year old Cameroonians.      

Questions and Answer about VOTE 18

1. What is “VOTE 18 CAMPAIGN?”

VOTE 18 is a campaign initiated by the Network for Solidarity, Empowerment and Transformation for All (NewSETA) to advocate the reduction of the minimum voting age in Cameroon from 20 to 18 years. The campaign is also intended to mobilize the new voter category to massively register on the electoral rolls and participate in future elections. 

2. Why did you choose such a slogan VOTE 18?

It speaks the message about our campaign in a simple and memorable way and suits our bilingual context.

3. Why do you advocate for the reduction of the voting age?

To encourage the participation of younger people in political decision making; instill civic values at a younger age; enable our country to measure up with its commitments towards youths, and be on the same footing with other African States that have made great progress on the inclusion of youths in the political process at younger ages. Cameroon is one of the only African countries left with a voting age at 20. Almost all others are voting at 18.

4. What inspired this Campaign?

The VOTE 18 project came up after we observed the simultaneous Municipal and Legislative Elections of September 30, 2013, and witnessed the under-representation of youths in these elections. Cameroon’s population then was well over 20 million people. However, only about 5.4 million registered to vote. After the elections, evaluations revealed there were about 1.2 million abstentions and 185000 null ballots, meaning those who effectively voted in these elections were slightly just over 4 million. In the October 07, 2018 Presidential election in Cameroon we witnessed same trends. Out of 6,667,754 registered voters only 3,590,681 effectually voted, amongst which 52,716 were null ballots. There were 3,077,073 abstentions and more than 50 % of these abstentions were young people.

The question we asked ourselves was, why were young people not participating in the electoral process? We realized that beyond any personal reasons, the electoral system was structured in a way that was meant to limit young people’s participation and prevented them from being nurtured to debate, deliberate and decide on current issues, so in most cases they were left behind. And what is tragic about this is that in every election, it is their future which is at stake.

5. Why do you say the electoral system discriminates against young people, when actually, it is some of the youths who don’t want to participate?

There could be personal and more reasons why youths are not participating in our political process but the law is very clear on the question of the voting age. Article 2(3) of the 1996 constitution of Cameroon states that “the vote shall be equal and secret, and every citizen aged twenty (20) years and above shall be entitled to vote.”

Cameroon has a population of about 24 million people with a median age of about 18 years. This means that when Cameroon’s population is divided in two parts, half (i.e. 12 million people) are below the age of 18 and the other half above 18. There are about 2 million people between the age of 18 and 20. When you add that to the population below 18, it makes 14 million people i.e. about 60 % of the population of Cameroon. Placing the voting age in Cameroon at 20 therefore means that only 40% of Cameroonians have been granted the right to vote in our elections.

In such scenarios, questions will obviously arise whether leaders who emerge from our electoral processes truly enjoy popular legitimacy or whether, they reflect the will of the majority of the people which forms the basis of their authority.

7. Don’t you think it is better to advocate for the creation of jobs for these youths than encouraging them to participate in political issues?

On the area of jobs, the government is doing its best although there are still areas to be improved, and it is true that the government cannot employ everybody. Through Vision 2035, the government has set a goal to make Cameroon an emerging democratic country, united in its diversity, by the year 2035. The first phase of the implementation of this Vision covering the 2010-2020 decade is clearly articulated in the Strategy Document for Growth and Employment. Youth programs like PAJER-U, PIAASI, the recruitment of 25000 youths, the setting up of the bank for SMEs, and “Fonds Special Jeunes” are indicative of the effort. Nevertheless, Cameroon’s growth for 2018 was only 4.6%. Manifestly, to achieve the Vision-2035, the country needed to maintain a double-digit growth from 2015. This means creating more jobs as you rightly say. But, who are those who create jobs or the enabling environment for job creation? Our leaders! In Cameroon we have always looked upon our leaders for jobs. Who elects those leaders? Ourselves! How do we make sure our leaders address our lack of jobs if we never participated in electing them or ensure that jobs are a key priority in their political manifestoes before electing them? When all is said and done, youths are the very ones who suffer most from this lack of political engagement.

8. So, what is the benefit of having these young people voting at 18years?

The benefits are enormous. First there would be increased voter turnout rates, something which would give our leaders greater popular legitimacy. If out of over 24 million Cameroonians only 6.5 million registered to vote in the last Presidential election (October 07, 2018), and 3 million from that number did not vote, citizen engagement is at stake.

There would also be improved understanding of electoral issues. The interaction between voters, observers, candidates, and election officials, improves understanding of election issues and the evaluation of higher public expectations regarding the integrity of our electoral process, respect for human rights and democratic principles. I think it would encourage young people to be more engaged, more responsible and to take responsibility for the quality of the democracy that we experience in Cameroon.

By granting 18-year olds the right to vote, we demonstrate that we are capable of preparing the most favorable ground for the future development of youth within our political system. We will enlarge the meaning of participatory democracy in our society and give our youth a new arena for their idealism, activism, and energy.

9. Don’t you think this will constitute a political risk as these are a new set of voters who can swing the elections against some candidates?

In any democracy, positive change should be welcome! There could, of course, be an important political dimension to 18 year-olds voting. Enfranchisement of 18 year-olds would add approximately 1.5 to 2 million persons to the voting age population in the Cameroon. It would increase the eligible electorate in the nation by slightly more than 15%. But I think if there were dominance of any one political party among this large new voting population, or among sub-groups within it, there might be an electoral advantage for that party or its candidates. As a result, 18 year-old voting would become a major political issue. Nevertheless, I believe that the risk is extremely small. They constitute a new electoral threshold that can be explored equally, by all political actors depending on their will to engage these young voters. 

Now try to evaluate this. Section 123 of the Labour Code of Cameroon already allows 18-year olds to vote in corporations and enterprises where they work. It states that : (1) With the exception of the head of the establishment, workers of either sex who are eighteen years old and have worked for not less than six months in the enterprise shall qualify as electors. Even at 20 someone qualifies as a candidate! (2) Electors, who are aged twenty years, can express themselves in English and French and have worked continuously in the enterprise for not less than twelve months shall be eligible for election.

 If it is not a ‘political risk’ to allow an 18-year old to vote the Board of a large corporation like Delmonte – with budgets far larger than those of some of our local Municipal Councils, why should it suddenly become a big political risk when it comes to allowing the same 18-year olds to vote for members of our local Councils for example? If you carefully evaluate the situation, the same general principles apply to these elections as national elections.  

 It may be that the issue is one – like women suffrage in the early nineteen hundreds – that cannot be finally resolved by reason or logic alone. Attitudes on the question are more likely to be determined by an emotional or a political response. It is worth noting, however, that almost all of the arguments now made against extending the right to vote to 18 year-olds were also made against granting suffrage to women. Yet, no one now seriously questions the wisdom of the option of granting these rights to women.

10. We are in Africa and let’s face our realities. At 18, many youths still live under the care of their parents; don’t you think they are immature to vote?

They are not immature, and to prove that, let me give a few examples. The government recruits soldiers into the military at the age of 18, allows young people to get married at 18 (and in some cases 15 for girls), ascribes them full criminal responsibility at 18, establishes them ID cards at 18 and even allows them to observe elections at 18. At the very least, the opportunity to vote should be granted in recognition of the risks an 18 year-old is obliged to assume when he or she is sent off to fight and perhaps die for this country. Sometime in June 2014, Radius Maliki died in an explosion in Ndabakora-Far North Cameroon, as his squad fought back a horrific attack from Boko Haram. At just 19, the corporal made the highest sacrifice for fatherland, but at that age, Maliki could not even choose who sent him to die. He was too young to vote. Can we really maintain that these young men and women do not deserve the right to vote? If we can trust an 18 year old with a gun, we should be able to trust same with a ballot.

To be sure, as many critics have pointed out, the abilities required for good soldiers are not the same abilities required for good voters. Nevertheless, I believe that we can accept the logic of the argument without making it dispositive. A society that imposes the extraordinary burden of war and death on its youth should also grant the benefit of full citizenship and representation, especially in sensitive and basic areas like the right to vote.

11. Are the youths knowledgeable enough about the stakes of being included in a political system without a solid and transparent foundation?

There is a need to sensitize the youths on their role in ensuring peaceful, free and fair elections and on such things like basic criteria for voting a leader, but this kinds of sensitization should be directed at every voter. Most people would tell you our political system is a work-in-progress and we need to learn from our mistakes and seek new ways of improving the system, one of which is rethinking an arrangement that produces apathetic youths. If youths are disconnected from the process, like it is the case today, the foundation will remain shaky.

12. If 20-year olds today are not even interested in political participation, do you think 18-year olds will find an interest in voting?

Firstly, I will not agree that all 20 year olds are not participating. They are voting, though not in the numbers we would like to see. The real question to ask is why are 20 year olds not voting when they have been granted the right to vote?

In some ways, it could be a matter of costs versus benefits of political participation. Some studies say political participation increases when the personal gratification and perceived benefits derived from participating outweigh the costs of doing so. These costs could include: cost of registering as a voter; the cost of gathering political knowledge that is necessary to make an informed decision; the time involved; and costs of voter mobilization efforts, etc. Younger voters tend to be mobile due to education and job-seeking and cannot easily go back to where they first registered to cast their vote, because our electoral system does not yet allow the possibility to vote wherever one finds themselves. Affected by these costs, they tend not make the requisite efforts.  Nevertheless, this cost-benefit framework faces dilemmas such as the “paradox of voting” (where people vote despite the fact that individual costs outweigh individual benefits), or “the collective-action problem” inherent in political participation, and so all cannot be explained in terms of costs and benefits.

Curiously, I have also heard some youths in the voting age group claim that their absence in the polls is still a form of participation aiming to send a clear message that choosing between different unpleasant alternatives during elections is disempowering and not worth their participation. So this brings the question of the quality of candidates running in our elections as a factor for participation.

In any case, the absence of young people during elections does not just happen when they become 20. The problem starts earlier. It is the result of a continuing culture of non-emphasis on political grooming and coaching, the absence of political or civic orientation and awareness-raising, and inadequate opportunities for active engagement as youths grow up in their homes or respective academic or informal learning institutions. This is further compounded by the legal restraint that puts the minimum voting age at 20, making it impossible for young people to be involved in any meaningful way before that age.  

In situations like these, mass voter mobilization can make a huge difference in ensuring that more 20 year-olds are participating in future elections. The same logic applies when the voting age is lowered to 18, although this will require greater mobilization efforts from the government and civil society.

13. Looking at most war-torn countries we realize that many young people are involved in violence, don’t you think that including them will rather create a sphere of radicalization after elections –instead of thinking collective growth they will rather think politics, tribalism and disputes due to their immaturity in political life?

To the many youths in other countries responsibly voting at 18 or even 16, this would be an unfair generalization. America and Botswana, or even Brazil and Argentina that have the voting ages at 18, or 16 have rarely experienced such radicalization since the voting age was lowered in those countries. Instead, the result has been the emergence of a critical mass of young people who are not only politically aware but also express their own role in creating a more stable democratic environment. Conversely, countries like the Ivory Coast which had a voting age at 21 until 2016, was engulfed in a post electoral crisis back in 2012, with voters agitating about results. This proves that without guidance, all age groups can engage in violence and destroy the very fabric of their own democracies.

14. Do you think at 18 a Cameroonian is mature enough to make good voting decisions?

I believe they possess the requisite maturity, judgment, and stability for responsible exercise of the franchise and deserve the right to vote. 18 year-olds already have many rights and responsibilities in our society comparable to voting. Although it does not automatically follow of course – simply because an 18 year-old goes to war, or works, or marries, or makes a contract, or pays taxes, or drives a car, or is held criminally responsible (it is noteworthy that the minimum age for criminal responsibility in Cameroon is 10), like an adult – that s/he should thereby be entitled to vote. Each right or responsibility in our society presents unique questions dependent on the particular issue at stake. However, the examples I have cited demonstrate that in many important respects and for many years, we have conferred far-reaching rights on our youth, comparable in substance and responsibility to the right to vote. Can we really maintain that it is fair to grant them all these rights, and yet withhold the right that matters most, the right to participate in choosing the government under which they live? Why would you think at 18 a youth would be able to make a good choice about a life partner, or even deciding a career for themselves and when it comes to the area of voting they are bound to get it all wrong?

 

Our young people today are far better equipped – intellectually, physically, and emotionally – to make the type of choices involved in voting than were past generations of youth. Many experts believe that today’s 18 year-old is at least the equal, physically and mentally, of a 21 year-old of his father’s generation, or a 25 year-old of his grandfather’s generation.  Indeed, in many cases, 18- to 20-year-olds already possess a better education than a large proportion of adults among our current voting population. And, they also possess a far better education than the vast majority of the electorate in all previous periods of our history. The statistics are dramatic: Fifty years ago, only 10% of Cameroonians between the ages of 18 and 21 were high school graduates. Today by contrast the retention rates in our schools are very high. In 2016 we had 91% enrolment in our primary school system. More Cameroonians graduated from high school last year than has ever been recorded. It is clear that the increased education of our youth is not measured merely by the quantitative amount of knowledge instilled. It is measured also by a corresponding increase in the priceless quality of judgment. Our 18 year-olds today are a great deal more mature and more sophisticated than former generations at the same stage of development.

15. Don’t you think this can open a way for political manipulators to use such children for their political interest?

At 18, they are no longer children! The Convention on the Rights of the Child or even the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is quite clear on this. Having said that, I think it all depends on the orientation that we give our young people. When you talk of political manipulation (we must try to end such practices by the way) you should recognize that it has no age limits. There are many examples we can cite in history of adults who have been manipulated. After the general elections of 2007 for example, the President and the Supreme Court had to call for fresh elections in some constituencies in the Littoral region apparently because the voters – who were never 18-year olds – were manipulated. Those elections were not free and fair. The manipulation of the electorate, through these sadly edifying examples requires us to rethink the meaning of political participation. Any political system that thrives on manipulation will quickly self-destroy.

16. Why do you limit your campaign to 18 years meanwhile elsewhere in Latin America and Europe some countries allow voting at 16 years?

The convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes a child as any one less than the age of 18. 18 is also the age at which Cameroon recruits its military, employs people, issues ID Cards and sanctions marriage for boys. All other countries in Africa with the exception of Cameroon, have the voting at 18. Brazil, Cuba, Austria, Argentina and several others have it at 16 and this is even better. To me, reducing the minimum voting age in Cameroon is the most important single principle we can pursue as a nation if we are to succeed in bringing our youth into full and lasting participation in our institutions of democratic government.

17. Youth payment of taxes as workers doesn’t necessarily give them the right to vote at 18 years. What do you have to say about that?

Why would the government only be interested in our taxes and not our representative participation? Familiar with the saying ‘No Taxation without Representation’?

18. Don’t you think they will vote the wrong person into office?

Our candidates are vetted by ELECAM and should be voted on the basis of their political vision and campaign manifestoes. If there is anything ‘wrong’ with the candidate I’m not sure they would get past the vetting process of ELECAM, or even if they do, they would certainly not be elected if the public judges that they are not the right candidate! Note that not only 18-year olds would be voting too!

19. What has NewSETA been doing so far, to enable review of the voting age which is still 20?

We have done a lot so far. NewSETA conducted a survey in the city of Yaoundé in November 2015 to sample the opinions of about 200 youths (principally high school and university students) on the question of reducing the voting age – examining their support for the idea, their willingness to register and vote if the voting age is reduced and other factors accounting for the under-participation of youths in national elections. We also had in-depth interviews with some resourceful elders on the subject. 74% of those we interviewed wished to see the voting age in Cameroon lowered to 18.

We had to engage Parliament with the outcomes of this study in 2016 when NewSETA was authorized by the President of the National Assembly, Hon. Cavaye to present the findings of our study in the first ordinary session of Parliament on March 15. We also presented a Bill to the REJE- Réseau Parlementaire Espérance Jeunesse, presided over by the Hon. Komba Gaston, with proposed modification of Article 2(3) of the Constitution and Article 45 of the Electoral Code.

We have organized several conferences and an ‘Echange Honorable’ in July 2017 which brought together 11 Members of Parliament and over 80 youth leaders to exchange of the same question. We wrote 180 letters to the 180 members in the current Parliament in July 2017 and have written a letter to the President of the Republic on the matter.

We are planning several National Days of Action and Media events on this continuing campaign to lower the voting age in Cameroon. We are grateful to the National Endowment for Democracy (NED, USA) that has accompanied us in this effort.