Politicians in most of our countries swear by the might of the youth – at least in public. They say they are a very important section of society, that they are the future of the nation and that its very survival depends on them.
Of course, the youth are a very important, if vague, demographic, not just in numbers but in attitude and outlook to life.
With most young people what you see is what you get. They are full of energy born out of their very youthfulness, idealism and conviction that everything is possible. They are genuinely concerned about making a difference in the world. Most of them do not carry any ugly baggage from the past – no heavy guilt to weigh them down, not many scores to settle or favours to return, certainly no skeletons straining to burst cupboards.
Because of this, they have not yet developed a high degree of cunning, calculation, intrigue and hypocrisy that is usually associated with older people, particularly politicians. And politicians know this. That is why many political parties have youth wings/leagues or individual politicians use interns. They want to use the youthful energy and enthusiasm of young people to further their particular cause and in a sense to sanitise their not-so-pure positions.
But there is always the danger that idealism, once not realised, can quickly turn into disillusionment, enthusiasm into despair and energy get channelled into violence. Anyone watching the revolutions of the Arab streets and squares in North Africa and the Middle East must be aware of this.
Politicians also know the negative and dangerous potential of the youth and will therefore tend to keep them close so as to keep them in check. And so they become a sort of tool in the hands of older, more calculating and cynical politicians.
That is why politicians’ public pronouncements about the youth, or their response to demands by the youth to live up to their expectations, do not necessarily match what they think in private.
There is little sincerity in the many platitudes about the youth. Indeed, sometimes referring to them as the ‘future of the nation’, ‘leaders of tomorrow’ and many other things about a time that has not yet come is a cunning way of denying them responsibility for things happening now. It is a cynical way of using them to further certain ambitions while putting off potential competition. It is a way of saying, ‘yes, you are important, but your time has not yet come. You must wait’. By the time it does, they are no longer youthful and a lot of opportunity has been lost.
In Rwanda, however, the situation is different. The youth as the future of the nation is not an attractive but empty slogan; it is taken seriously in its literal sense. In fact, the role of the youth is taken so seriously that it does not have to wait for the future but is real here and now and an indispensable part of the present. And from their standpoint in the present, they want to leave the past behind and forge a new future where what counts is the contribution of everyone.
And they match words with action. They are entrepreneurs, leaders in government and non-governmental organisations and even politicians. They have taken the initiative on many issues without waiting for directions from government or other leaders. Often, they lead and government follows.
Rwandan youth have been so bold as to broach subjects their elders would consider taboo. For instance, they have taken the lead in proposing that some Rwandans should seek forgiveness for their role in the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994. Now, this is a matter about which some people get touchy, yet one that must be confronted.
It is well-known that many Rwandans were compli0cit in the genocide – either directly as planners and killers, or indirectly through inaction or the deliberate refusal to help those in distress. They share a sense of guilt and cannot run away from it.
Difficult as it may seem, many survivors of the genocide have unconditionally forgiven people who killed members of their families. Some killers, too, have asked for forgiveness and been pardoned.
Is it too much to ask those who killed or stood by as the killing was done, or turned away those looking for a place to hide from the murderers to seek forgiveness?
This is all the young people are asking. It does not merit the angry reaction from self-exiled Rwandans, some with good reason to ask for pardon.
More importantly, in doing this, Rwandan youth have shown that they have been liberated from the world still inhabited by their elders and are prepared to march on. As President Paul Kagame has observed, they are way ahead of the older Rwandans.
Significantly they have are not doing this from a political party position or on the instructions of anyone. They have taken a position based on the national interest and the direction they want Rwanda to take. It is in our interest to support them.