Viewpoint: “Too often, the leadership talks of youth, without ever engaging them. That needs to change.”

In this opinion piece, Dr Jacqueline Chimhanzi, CEO of the African Leadership Institute, argues for greater engagement with and greater representation of the youth at the decision making table. Too often, the leadership talks of youth, without ever engaging them. There is a video clip that does the rounds, now and again, on social media, […]


In this opinion piece, Dr Jacqueline Chimhanzi, CEO of the African Leadership Institute, argues for greater engagement with and greater representation of the youth at the decision making table. Too often, the leadership talks of youth, without ever engaging them.

There is a video clip that does the rounds, now and again, on social media, of former South African President, Thabo Mbeki, at the “Leadership for the Africa We Want” conference in 2015 in Kigali, Rwanda.  From the floor, he raises some salient points and, also poses a number of very pertinent and thought-provoking questions directed at a panel of eminent African leaders and Heads of State: “We have to answer this question, what is the Africa we want?” Where is this leadership? How do we create it?  What is the leadership that is suitable for this Africa we want?

In my view, that leadership is already here on the continent.  In abundance, in fact. It exists in the form of Africa’s youth and young leaders.  Rather, what I perceive to be the problem, is not that Africa lacks appropriate leadership but that young capable leaders are not being let into various African platforms, institutions and given the space to contribute to building the Africa we all want and deserve.  Young people represent Africa’s greatest but untapped resource and wealth.  According to a March 2017 report, “Africa is at a Tipping Point,” by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, “whether [Africa] continues rising or falls back depends, above all else, on whether the continent creates the conditions in which its greatest resource — its young people — can shine.”  I would go even further and posit that young leaders do not merely want to be the “inheritors” or “beneficiaries” of conducive environments in which they can shine but they want to actively be a part of the processes of creating those conditions.  But they cannot be active participants from outside, as the policy realm is necessarily the preserve of government and key institutions such as the AU and the RECs.  And these are the institutions that determine the future of Africa and Africans.

On a continent that is disproportionately young, the absence of young leaders in key decision-making positions is glaring.  Twelve years after the endorsement of the African Youth Charter by the African Union Heads of States and Governments meeting in Banjul, Gambia, there is an evident and yawning gap between rhetoric and reality.  Whilst the Youth Charter enshrines the rights, duties and freedoms of African youth and, specifically, seeks to ensure the constructive involvement of youth in the development agenda of Africa and their effective participation in the debates and decision-making processes in the development of the continent, young people are conspicuous by their absence in these deliberations and processes.

Whilst inclusion and diversity policies have largely focused on gender, there have not been similar concerted efforts focused on age and the youth. And given Africa’s unique and youthful demographic profile there is a compelling case for youth participation and representation.   There is a real danger to not bringing in young people.  The very sustainability of initiatives such as Agenda 2063 are undermined if the continent does not engage in deliberate succession planning at national, regional and continent levels.  Young people need to start gaining experience, now, as the inheritors of existing systems.  How will they inherit institutions and systems they don’t understand nor relate to? In the absence of such succession planning, a yawning void is pending, inevitable and dangerous.

Also, the urgency of the African development challenge calls for new thinking, new ideas and innovation.  Given the complexities and challenges the continent faces, there is a need to harness ideas from across the population divide – men, women and youth – to take Africa forward.   Whilst problems have changed in their complexity so, too, has the nature of the solutions.  We need a new kind of responsiveness anchored in agility and innovation.  In some cases, these solutions can only necessarily be generated by the youth in this era of apps, coding and writing algorithms.  Whilst new African leaders are being developed, by institutions such as the one I lead, they are nowhere near operating at the centre and with the critical mass required for Africa to realise sustained change.  Indeed, young people want to be a part of the processes of co-creating the Africa that we all want to see but, for that to happen, the absorptive capacity of extant systems needs to be enlarged to allow them a seat at the table.  I strongly believe that solutions are necessarily created at the nexus of experience and innovation/new thinking and will necessarily be enabled by intergenerational deliberations. 

So, how do I envisage this opening up of spaces to let young people in?  On a continent with a calibre of young leaders who are, even, globally recognised, African policy-makers and governments should seek to develop structures that would allows them to leverage these young people who are developing solutions to Africa’s most challenging developmental challenges.  Could this be a Presidential Youth Council?  Is it possible to have youth councils in Ministries such as health, education and agriculture to bring new thinking?  Surely, if a young person can disrupt a sector – agriculture, health or education – they definitely need to be at the same table with the policy-makers and decision-makers.  After all, they are the experts working at the coalface!  It’s not enough for young people to be running incubator hubs or accelerators.  They need to be invited to play a role at the “centre” and be a part of any African country’s team that is responsible for job creation strategies and developing effective and enabling ecosystems for entrepreneurs.  I recently read about a young Nigerian who is supposedly the world’s richest robotics engineer and is being pursued by big global companies in Silicon Valley.  My immediate thought was, “I wonder if any African government has reached out to him to assist with their preparedness for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and to help rethink education curricula to bring it into the 21st century.”

Youth do want to merely be acknowledged in AU strategies and governments and represented by Ministries of Youth who talk about them and strategize about them as though they are a problem.  They must be unleashed, valued, listened to and invited to participate in the construction of solutions for the wellbeing of the continent, as the resource that they are. 

I personally would like to see an Africa where these young talents migrate from operating and innovating on the “periphery” to playing at the “centre” because policy-setting and policy implementation that impacts nations and regions, happens at the centre.  They have much bigger roles to play towards nation building based on the experiences of their current roles.  In conclusion, there is a need to think creatively about how the technical expertise of young African leaders, whether they are in the private sector or as entrepreneurs, or in the Diaspora, can be better leveraged.  There is currently a huge focus on empowering young people and equipping them with appropriate skills.  That is all well and good and is to be applauded, but what are we doing with the current crop of young African leaders that we already have?… Let’s leverage our demographic dividend!

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