Increasingly the youth, who constitute an overwhelming majority of the population of African countries, feel disenfranchised from their political representatives and other figures of authority. This is a youth which is connected and exposed everyday through television, via the internet or the radio to foreign realities, and one which exercises, therefore, a degree of autonomy in relation to traditional lifestyles. Our youth are no longer confined to developing their identity and aspirations based upon the place in which they live or upon the answers that the elders are prepared to give.
On the other hand, traditional leadership often remains problematic in Africa. Political figures and other figures of authority find it difficult coming to terms with the increasingly fluid identities and fragmented authority in the modern African state. Eventually this state of affairs could lead to the progressive breakdown of the norms which have sustained African life till now. This process has taken place in other parts of the world. But it is taking place at such an accelerated pace on the continent that the question needs to be asked as to whether it could threaten the development pathway of Africa.
However, here is another way of looking at the issue beyond a simple juxtaposition. Culture is not static but always changing as each generation contributes its experience of the world and discards things that are no longer useful to them. African countries are already largely multinational, multi-ethnic and multi-religious countries built on European ideas of the modern state. The source of traditional authority and legitimacy, blood and land, has mostly since been replaced by civic ideas of democracy. Today this democracy seeks new energy, as it does across the world. To be able to harness the energy and ambitions of our youth into a positive force we must create space to allow them to co-create the future.
The youth bulge in sub-Saharan Africa has not escalated into political violence. But we should not wait for a climate of us-versus-them to settle. Governments need to continue to invest in all levels of education, in vocational training and, most of all, in policy that creates the incentives for higher investments to absorb the country’s labour. Traditional leadership styles need to give way. Barriers against transparency need to come down, allowing access to public information, open data and creating, in the process, a more meaningful participation in the political process. We need to build the bridges necessary to allow the voice of the African youth to shape party policy, and contribute to their country’s crucial dialogues over nation building. So, let us create the conditions for a real partnership with the youth, sending a strong signal that their involvement is an integral part of the transformation of the continent.