Demographic change, rising inequality and a fragile global macro-economy are arguably our greatest challenge for the next century. While in the past, the fight to tackle these challenges took place at the national level, today, it’s cities that will determine how much progress we make.

That’s because many of these challenges are affecting cities. In cities across the Western world, shrinking and ageing populations contribute to a diminishing tax base, and an erosion of the social compact between retirees and young job seekers. This in turn distorts fiscal and labour practices.

In cities of the global south, collapsing to non-existent infrastructure buckles under the pressure of an exponential youth bulge, and political elites struggle to carry their manifestos across ever wider generations.

The ‘African Way’

While these trends are so familiar as to constitute a new global normal, African cities have an extra challenge to contend with: that of a post-colonial imaginary. This imaginary is defined in part by several features, including a desire to reclaim pre-colonial autonomy by promoting alternative forms of governance – something that has been referred to as an “African Way” – that often sit outside Western conventions of leadership.

A second feature of the post-colonial imaginary involves an assertion of African interests (or disinterest in global geopolitics) and increased national chauvinism. At the same time, it also involves an emergent youth that is both agile and increasingly technocratically-equipped in ways that the African “Liberation Generation” were not.

The third feature of the post-colonial reality is a dissonance between narrowly assumed traditional African values, and a cosmopolitan African identity, which embraces minority, gender, orientation and cultural complexity as positive vectors for growth and wellbeing.

Clinging on to power

The desire to follow this African Way raises challenges and opportunities. This binary world view – which sets up African as “Other” or “contrary to” – produces unclear conclusions, and perverse forms of tradition become proxies for cultural authority and governance.

This tension has often allowed more problematic actors to monopolize various social and political spaces, imposing their worldviews and fostering various forms of domestic or political abuse under the guise of culture.

It’s perhaps for this reason that many African nations continue to be led by septuagenarians who often claim their political agency and legitimacy from their role in liberating their nations from colonial or neo-colonial forces. Instead of departing office when their term ends, many of these leaders have chosen to stay on a little longer – in some cases much longer.

Tomorrow’s leaders

While there was a time when these leaders were idolized as liberation heroes, the tide is turning. With the emergence of a well-informed and ambitious youth population, all countries on the continent will soon start seeing the full impact of this dynamic between a powerful, old elite and the next generation of aspiring leaders.

In response to this often opaque political world, where access involves compromising patterns of patronage – or is simply not conducive to safe, alternative forms of political expression – many young people are instead turning to entrepreneurialism.

As political elites have much better access to all kinds of resources, new forms of tension and opportunity will arise, creating different instruments of leverage. These might range from new political parties to novel forms of geopolitical and economic alliances forged by African youth as they create their own supra-national identity.

Two possible futures for Africa

While other countries or regions find themselves tackling issues such as the technological revolution, climate change and religious conflict, Africa’s biggest challenge over the next five years will be how it reconciles the demands of its strident youth – and their take on how to shape the post-colonial continent – in the face of established and entrenched power structures.

I see two possible futures. In one, a technocratically-empowered youth have enough agency and ethical nous to interpret leadership as a form of limited and selfless service. In the other, these same people instead use their agency to entrench and reinforce inequality through more sophisticated and resilient means, and in so doing ossify various undesirable post-colonial practices of governance.

I see the African Way as a legitimate instrument to forge an ontologically unique manner of being in a global and increasingly homogenized world. But it will be up to Africa’s young people to ensure that this approach does not replicate the same policies that have stalled the democratic and economic growth of many African nations.

Telling Africa’s story

Africa has many fantastic stories to be told: growing economies, an increasingly sophisticated and educated workforce, dynamic sparks of entrepreneurial and cultural creativity. While the “Africa Rising” narrative is a long-term process, and not a short-term outcome, Africa is far from the lost continent some people still see.

But there is much at stake. The big story, in my mind, is about which direction Africa will take, and how this will exacerbate or ameliorate the challenges of radical demographic change. To misquote Bill Clinton, “It’s the leadership, stupid.” Afro-pessimism, be damned: I believe in the youth of the continent. We just have to be given the chance to lead. Watch this space.

This article is part of our Africa series. You can read more here.

The World Economic Forum on Africa is taking place in Kigali, Rwanda from 11 to 13 May.