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African Exchange: Student Parliamentarians Meet with Guinea Bissau’s President

June 27, 2011

The President of Guinea-Bissau’s National Infantile Parliament, Seco Sidibe (middle) meets with Guinea Bissau’s President Malam Bacai Sanhá (R)Iracema Do Rosario, the President of Guinea-Bissau's Institute of Women and Children (L).

For the past two years, Search for Common Ground has worked to foster a culture of democracy and civic engagement in Angola, starting with its youth—through the School Parliament Program. Angola’s most recent elections, in 2008 resulted in victory for the ruling People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola Labor Party (MPLA). The 2008 elections were the country’s first since 1992 and were long-delayed due to the outbreak of civil war. The 2008 elections were declared fair by a number of international and domestic observers and restored confidence the possibility of democratic processes.

In the wake of the elections, the door was opened for new policies and reforms as well as increased dialogue between the government, civil society and civilian representation. The 2008 elections had the unintended consequence of creating unrealistic expectations amongst much of the population. Additionally 2008 marked the first time any Angolans under 35 would have had the opportunity to vote and they did so with enthusiasm and wide spread participation.. Many young people see elections as a quick road to change without taking in the political and structural realities on the ground. It’s a delicate balance between engaging youth in political participation and ensuring that they don’t blindly follow the word of political parties, which often leads to disappointment and disillusion. or Search, the way to manage this delicate balance is through civic education is the key.

To respond to the current gap in civic education, we’ve created a system of School Parliaments in Angolan schools. Many young people have had little or no opportunities to play a positive role in public life. The 2008 elections gave them a small taste, but it is only the first step, and its positive effects must be nurtured in order to thrive.

The School Parliaments project is based on the model that we introduced in Burundi in 2005. The Burundian project has been so successful that the Ministry of Education intends to take over the initiative and incorporate the idea into the national curriculum. We’ve adapted the project to fit the Angolan context, stressing the importance of participation so that their needs and voices are represented in government.

“The opportunity to participate in the Student Parliament gave me the knowledge and confidence to express my views on politics and the government of my country. I will not be a passive spectator but will intervene in debates that have an impact on me and my family in the future.” ~Student Parliamentarian

Currently we’re working with high school students in Luanda, the capital and largest city and Cabinda, which is largely excluded from national politics, both by geography and by the province’s separatist movement. The students are identified as young leaders by their teachers and principals. Through their participation, students learn the principles of democracy and good governance. They participate in seminars on constitutional rights, government institutions and conflict resolution and put what they’ve learned into practice by actually going through the election process to choose parliamentary leadership according to the guidelines of the National Electoral Commission.

The project also involves local and national government authorities and students have opportunities to learn from their experiences as well. Our aim is to show that when people with different perspectives work together, good governance is not only promoted, but enhanced. Now we’re looking to bolster the program through youth exchanges with more established programs. The National Infantile Parliament from Guinea-Bissau is currently taking part in an exchange in Angola so that Parliamentarians from both countries share best practices and approaches. Their delegation is lead by Iracema Do Rosario, the President of Guinea-Bissau’s Institute of Women and Children.

Before departing for Angola, the President of Guinea-Bissau’s National Infantile Parliament, Seco Sidibe and Do Rosario met with Guinea Bissau’s President, Malam Bacai Sanhá to encourage support for student parliament exchanges. President Sanhá also met with the Bissau-Guinean exchange students and provided full financial support for their trip.

National Infantile Parliament President, Seco Sidibe, speaks about his meeting with the Bissau-Guinean President.

“The Students’ Parliament has taught me to interact with colleagues outside my comfort zone. Now I am comfortable speaking with people from different regions who think differently than me. Through dialogue we can learn from each other and make decisions that are best for us all.” ~School Parliament Deputy from Luanda

In the near future, SFCG is expanding the project to include ‘conflict resolution centers’ in schools and mobilizing the parliamentarians to also serve as mediators amongst their peers. Looking forward, Search hopes to institutionalize the Student Parliament in Angolan curriculums and to expand similar programs regionally, specifically in Portuguese-speaking African countries.

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