Guinea-Bissau: Perspectives on the challenges of democracy and youth participation

One country, two decades of democracy, eight elections and eight presidents: Welcome to Guinea-Bissau and the challenges young people face for the affirmation of democracy.

Since gaining its independence from Portugal in 1973, the Guinea-Bissau has seen four coups d'état and numerous other coup attempts. Despite the constancy of instability, the current parliamentary crisis, resulting from the resignation of the government that won the last elections, presents two new positive changes. First, the military accepted democratic rules. Second, the youth have begun to peacefully raise their voice against ‘politics as usual’ and for democratic progress.

I was born in Guinea Bissau and lived there until I was 17 when my family decided to move to Portugal. After 10 years abroad I came back to help the sustainable development of the country. While the majority of young people leave the country to find opportunity, I wanted to give young people reasons to stay and believe they can have professional, economic and social security in Guinea Bissau. This vision led me to creating Tchintchor in 2012, a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that is determined to boost young people's participation in the country's development through active and participatory citizenship.

According to population data collected in 2017, young people are the majority in Guinea-Bissau. Despite this, they face serious difficulties in participating politically. Young people have no voice in political parties, and civil society is only timidly involved in monitoring elections. In fact, the barriers of youth participation originated from the lack of knowledge of their civil rights and civic education. Young people do not know, do not interact with and do not question their representatives. The country’s biggest challenge is changing the mentality of young people and showing them that they must support the common good, not political personalities. Young people also need to recognize their importance in a democracy. Voting is just one step in a process that must accompany good governance. Young people must interact with and question their representatives and hold them accountable.

During the last elections, Tchintchor participated in the creation of Movement Republica di Mininus Hoje (Movement Republic of Children Today), a campaign that gathered a coalition of social and professional organizations committed to improving national policies for children and youth. From this experience, we have learned that elections provide a great opportunity to link community members with their respective representative and improve engagement and commitment between communities and those elected to represent them.

Tchintchor has been training young people to boost their participation through training programs such as School of Citizenship - Nelson Mandela, which is inspired by the example of Mandela. We provide young people with a week-long training to know their rights, the duties and challenges of this generation and enables them to be active citizens in their communities.

In five years of work in the country, Tchintchor has become a resource for youth participation --  we currently have 100 young people studying in the Polytechnic Institute of Beja - Portugal as well as established a permanent project to support patients in the second largest hospital in the country. Being selected for the Mandela Washington Fellowship recognizes our work. The most important aspect of these amazing six weeks of my NDI fellowship, after first spending time at the University of Delaware focusing on Civic Leadership, was to gain a set of skills and tools to continue contributing to my work on democracy and the restoration of development in my homeland.

Parliamentary elections were scheduled for November 18th, 2018 and have since been shifted to early 2019. We have an opportunity to increase youth participation. To make the most of this opportunity, we need to involve youth and equip them with the tools that allow them to gain a legitimate position within democracy alongside those who have the power to make decisions. Tchintchor plans to focus on civic education to increase the ability of young people to question their representatives, to empower them about their rights, to educate them on the rules of democracy, and teach them how be an active voice for their community in order to contribute to solving their own problems. I believe civic education and engagement will boost the capacity of influence and participation inside and outside the political parties and beyond elections.

In the next elections, the motto of young people should be “Change: Our Voice, Our Actions!”