By Alexander Tsado
“Africa’s young population could be a huge economic asset if inequality were addressed.”
Today is un-arguably the best era in Africa’s recent history with her vibrant, youthful population. Africa has the youngest population in the world, home to 19% (about 231million) of its youth. This is set to reach about 335million (42%) by 2030. This demographic can be a huge economic asset to the world given the world’s ageing population: a youthful workforce can boost per capita growth, savings, and innovative investments. In the last decade, East Asian countries like Korea experienced drops in their dependency ratios – a ratio of the non-working age population to the working-age population – leading to rises in per capita income and drops in the unemployment rate.
However, it is essential to understand that this vibrant population only provides an opportunity for development and not development itself. Mismanagement of this asset can lead to turmoil. As Caroline O.N Moser’s study in 2002 showed, inequality and exclusion, associated with unequal distribution of economic, political, and social resources in urban contexts mostly precipitate violence.
So how involved is Africa’s youth in influencing policy and how do we continue to improve that?
Unfortunately, Africa has the most significant gap between the governors and the governed. The average age of an African president is 62 years old, while Africa’s median population is 19.5 years. With such a wide gap, it is tricky for decision-makers to understand the needs and dreams of the younger majority, hence the need for youth involvement in policy-making.
I discussed this issue with distinguished panellists at the just concluded Wharton Africa Business Forum to engage the audience on potential solutions. The panel featured Brighton Kaoma, an environmentalist and youth empowerment expert, Kunle Malomo, Founder & Chief Executive Officer Peoples Productivity Solution and Kemi Adetu, Founder of GLOW: Girls, Ladies, Orphans, Women, United (for) Progress. The rest of this article will feature thoughts gathered from that room.
Notably, a redefinition of the role of education, reform of government policies, and the creation of youth empowerment programs are some effective actions to capitalize on Africa’s demographic dividend. The growth in non-voting activities that influence policy present Africa’s youth sizable opportunity to drive change in their societies.
Who is a youth?
Contrary to popular definitions based on age range, youthfulness is a period of your life when you have passion, dreams, and the full energy to execute. Youthfulness is most synonymous with strength, both physical and mental.
However, the definition of youth is entirely relative, as everyone seems to disagree on a particular age-range due to differences in socio-cultural, institutional, economic, and political factors. But the fact that it is a transition from childhood to adulthood is what informs all the different age ranges.
According to the United Nations (UN), youths are people between the ages of 15-24 years old. But, according to the African youth charter (AYC), a youth is one between the ages of 15-35 years. Going by the African youth charter definition, there are about 420 million youths in Africa representing a third of its population.
African Youths in Politics: The Road So Far.
During colonial times, African youths were the pioneers of political change. The likes of Nigeria’s Nnamdi Azikiwe, Guinea’s Sékou Touré, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah were young nationalists who initiated changes that led to their country’s political freedom.
In recent times, African youths are relegated to the backstage by much older and influential politicians. Politics in Africa today has become a venture for the rich and old. According to a survey done by Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) in Ghana, Uganda, and Nigeria to quantify some of these costs, an average $85,000 was spent by aspiring members of parliament in Ghana to secure a party’s nomination during the primaries. In Uganda, parliamentarians quoted outlays ranging from $43,000 to $143,000. In Nigeria, people seeking to be elected to either house of the bicameral national assembly in 2015 made estimated spending of staggeringly high $500,000 to ensure victory.
Another limiting factor is the discriminatory legislation against the younger population. In Nigeria, you had to be 40 to stand for the presidency, 35 to become a state governor and 30 to contest for a seat in the House of Representatives until peaceful protests helped reduce these numbers.
The youths are seen and used as tools for violence during the electoral processes, and they are therefore not taken seriously as leaders for fear of incompetence and inexperience.
However, evidence of the contrary has begun to show up across the continent in business and politics. In 2016, Francisca Oteng Mensah, a 23-year-old female law student made history by becoming Ghana’s youngest elected member of parliament. In Kenya’s 2017 election, John Paul Mwirigi, a 23-year-old student, campaigned on a shoestring budget, using traditional door-to-door campaigning. Relying on social rather than financial capital, and combined with growing disillusionment with the political class, he succeeded on winning the election.
Also soaring past constraints are many in Rwanda, best represented by Tesi Rusagara. She is the head of the Kigali Innovative city project, set up to help position Rwanda as a pan-African hub in tech and business. Rwanda, driven by its President, has begun to show great trust for youth leadership by affording great responsibilities on its citizens trained at home and abroad.
Alternative Paths to Influencing Policy as an African Youth
Beyond traditional methods of acquiring direct political power to change policy, new avenues are springing up for young people around the world and in Africa to influence policy.
Social media platforms like Twitter have given birth to influential leaders, building movements large enough to alter political direction. For example, the hashtag #nigeriadecide helped track the numbers of actual voters in polling units across the country and ensure the final result was better tied with that collated at the polling centres.
Brighton Kaoma, the 23-yr old on our Wharton panel through his “Agents of Change Zambia” used the radio to create opportunities for youth-led, issue-based dialogue, participation, creativity, leadership, and active citizenship in communities across Zambia. He has used his organization to influence climate and environmental policies around Africa, earning him the Queen’s Young Leader Award by Queen Elizabeth II.
Government advisory committees and civil society groups offer another path to influencing policy. Examples include Y’en a Marre (“We’ve had enough”), a group of rappers in Senegal, Le Balai Citoyen (the People’s broom), in Burkina Faso and Filimbi and LUCHA (Lutte pour le Changement, or Struggle for Change) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
At my organization, the Alliance for Africa’s Intelligence, we prepare Africa’s youth for the future of work and empower them with skill sets that quickly afford them positions on government Advisory groups for their governments. Baxolile Mabinya and Nomso Kana are both directors on our board and serve on the South African presidential 4IR commission, while Aretha Mare of Zimbabwe led our effort to advise on several 4IR Policy Reforms being designed by African governments.
Tips on Competent Leadership
The question of competency is often raised because of the polluted political environment in Africa. There’ve been examples of youths who got influenced by extraordinary political forces that require callous skin to resist. Forces such as financial compromise and personal interests are leading factors in poor youth performance in politics.
Unfortunately, the level of focus needed to remain steadfast doesn’t get taught in many homes or schools. As Kunle Malomo stated during the Wharton panel, our schools need to evolve to prepare beneficiaries for contributing to life and finding value. This entails preparing them for the economics, politics and religion of the day they exist in and the near future they can forecast.
Imperatively, aspiring youth should keep eyes out for leaders they respect to guide them as mentors, through the important journeys they’ll embark. As I like to say, never travel a road without at least speaking to one person who’s travelled a similar path before.
The Future of Young African Leader
This future has to be bright.
As a young person in Africa today, educate yourself on the many paths to influencing policy and changing your world, you can do it. Seek out examples and mentors to learn from their experiences and teach your learnings to others. The world needs us.
At Alliance for Africa’s Intelligence, we make it easy for the aspiring technologists amongst you to find stories, leaders and inspiration to chart your own path with disruptive technologies. Explore our resources and reach out as you need.
Your young leaders won your independence in the 1960s under incredibly difficult conditions. Now it’s your turn to spin your conditions around and create the change you seek, good luck.