CONTRADICTIONS CAN BEST DESCRIBE the Africa story today. One the one hand, there is much talk about prevalent poverty, and on one hand there is profuse optimism about potential waiting to be unlocked. While statistics say one thing, the political leaders – even those who acknowledge such statistics – do the opposite. National, regional and continent-wide policies on pragmatic issues have been long on intentions but short on actions, particularly in the area of succession, sustainability, governance, legacy and youth. It was estimated, in 2020, that almost 60 per cent of Africa’s population was under the age of 25, making Africa the youngest continent. That sounds like music to the ear. But what is the actual situation?
Assessing the subject of youth population in isolation and without reference to leadership would be an incomplete exercise. In every polity, events are consequences of policies, actions, inactions, decisions and indecisions. The vital statistics of African contemporary population could very well be assessed from the perspective of a glass as either half empty or half full. This arises from the concerns about the possibilities of the continent’s youth bulge becoming a challenge or liability rather than potential or asset. And these call for serious concerns and urgent remedial actions. A number of issues will need to be examined in the context of development, prosperity, security and stability.
The African Union (AU), as we know, is led by national government heads, diplomats and high level government officials. The same applies to the various regional political and economic blocs, an example of which is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). But the heads of governments have – and still remain – predominantly the older generation presiding over the affairs of a new generation with completely new and different realities. If the old generation of leaders have done well, all evidences of their performances would have been there for all to see. So, the idea of self-perpetuation by these worn-out and out-of-tune leaders is an aberration and a drag on a continent that is in desperate need of transformation on many fronts, including leadership and governance.
AU’s African Youth Charter asserts that Africa’s youth is its biggest resource and Africa’s growing youth population offers enormous potential. This sounds reassuring, to say the least. But it also provides grounds for complacency, particularly for those who expect things to happen spontaneously. Expecting extraordinarily new things to happen under the watch of old people who still cling on to power or those who devise disingenuous means of retaining power beyond statutory limits is delusory at its worst. ECOWAS has been grappling with some regime ruptures in the sub-region in the past two years, beginning with Mali. It has been struggling to establish its relevance and influence, flexing muscles and threatening sanctions. But whether it has what makes such threats effective remains to be seen.
In the aftermath of the coup that deposed Alpha Conde of Guinea, it was rather interesting that the likes of Alassane Ouattara of Cote d’Ivoire could be sitting in Conakry, last Friday, in a meeting to discuss about the release of Alpha Conde and mounting pressure on the military junta on a speedy return to civilian rule. Only Ouattara probably knew what was going on in his mind as he attended that meeting while seeking the release of his co-traveller in subversion of people’s will in desperate attempts to remain in power. What moral message was he passing by his participation in efforts at Conde’s release? Will Ouattara pave way for a successor in the next election in his own Ivory Coast, or will he continue to manipulate the political system to his own personal advantage at people’s expense?
Africa has been variously described as the continent of the future. But the older generation is standing in the way. In recent times, Mo Ibrahim Foundation, a philanthropic organisation, has been focusing attention on African youth. The 2019 Ibrahim Forum Report discovers that about 60 per cent of Africans, and especially youth, think that their governments are doing a very bad or a fairly bad job at addressing the needs of young people. This highlights the need for a rethink on the status and relationship between youth and politics. In addition, in 2017, the Foundation noted that Africa was on the verge of losing its youth, to political apathy, but also migration or extremist groups. The lack of economic opportunity, often combined with political disenfranchisement, are creating a potential cause of instability. Those countries ruled by leaders who have been in power for so long have obviously become victims of poor politics and bad economics, leading to alienation of well-meaning teeming youth from the mainstream political leadership. This denies the growing population of youth their deserved opportunities.
The 2019 Ibrahim Forum Report has described Africa’s first challenge in this regard as the youth bulge currently stuck in ‘waithood’ as the energies and ambitions of Africa’s youth continue to be wasted. One of the negative consequences of deprivation and this ‘waithood’ is now manifesting in dangerous ways as many are becoming serious destabilising forces, threatening not only just future progress, but rolling back the gains of recent years. The World Bank has shown that only 19.1 per cent of young sub-Saharan Africans between the ages 15 and 24 have received wages in the past year or two and only 26.4 per cent have their own account at a financial institution.
The enduring deindustrialisation and limited opportunities in the service sector have restricted the exposures of many young Africans to formal employment, and the old people in power in various countries of Africa appear helpless in any attempt to correct this persistent problem. Many young Africans have to find an alternative in the informal sector as a coping strategy, but they get trapped in a precarious employment status which contributes to a delayed transition to adulthood, in what Ibrahim Foundation report described as ‘waithood.’ For the youth that manage to secure employment, informal jobs are regarded as the norm rather than the exception.
Advanced education has not provided the anticipated fulfilment among the youth in most of Africa as unemployment rates among 15 to 24 year olds with advanced level education are higher than for those with basic education, with the exception of four countries, namely: Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa and Swaziland. It is even pathetic in Mali where 55.6 per cent of 15 to 24 year olds with an advanced education are without a job, compared to 3.3 per cent of those with basic education. The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) disclosed that 27 out of the 54 countries within the continent recorded a decline in the Education sub-category between 2013 and 2017. The implication is that the education outcomes of over half of Africa’s citizens have been worsening.
Leadership and mentoring opportunities for young Africans, especially in sub-Saharan African countries, have been limited. Their access to programmes that prepare them for the school to work transition has been particularly dismal, with just 1.1 per cent of the 15 to 24 year olds in sub-Saharan Africa participating in a vocational education programme in 2017. How well the country is preparing for the future of work is therefore worrisome as almost 16 million young Africans, estimated at around 13.4 per cent of the total labour force of the 15 to 24 year olds, can become a lost generation in terms of opportunities as they are facing serious unemployment. The pre-2020 demographic projections by the UN gave the median age in Africa as likely to be 19.8 in 2020, indicating that Mauritius was expected to have the highest median age of 37.4, and Niger Republic the lowest, 15.1. Its 2019 report indicated that more than a third of the population was aged between 15 and 34 and projected that Africa’s youth population could be double of Europe’s entire population by 2100.
Poor education, low capacity, inadequate manpower development and poor growth prospects are all inextricably linked. Niger Republic has been presented as a country with 24 per cent of youth as literate in 2014, with the youth population projected to grow by 92 per cent within the next 15 years. Rapid growth of the population within the age range of 15 to 24 amidst low youth literacy rates is projected to be found in Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia even with prevalent inadequate investment in the health and education of the youth. The absernce of high-quality education denies the youth an access to productive employment and decent work. Many therefore resort to risky migrations, with dire consequences.
It is important to emphasise that African youth can be a positive force for development, especially when provided with the knowledge and opportunities they need to thrive. They need the requisite education and skills to enable them contribute in a competitive polity and a productive economy. But there ought to be qualitative and adequate human capital investment to reduce the high unemployment rates among them. The young demographic could be harnessed as a powerful tool and an opportunity for development.
To paraphrase from the 2017 Mo Ibrahim Foundation, the existential challenges which are both “huge and immediate” require “committed leadership and robust governance if Africa is to enable its young people to build the prosperous and peaceful future we all want to see.” Few years ago in one forum organised by him, Mo Ibrahim himself could not hide his disgust for African leaders who have been staying for too long in offices as he confronted the old guards, asking if they “are crazy.” His confrontational statement and question asked then, which came in response to the comments of one of the old African leaders in that event could well capture the crisis of leadership in African nations today, the present and future consequences of the actions of selfish and visionless national leaders and the sad realities that their insensitivity and paranoia. It seems Mo Ibrahim was right that they are ‘crazy.’ And, Africa’s progress cannot be assured or facilitated by crazy leaders. It is now time for sane and younger generation to lead the continent. Old actors need to toe the path of honour and make way for the young ones to lead.