Youth Perspectives

How the African Union can put the youth demographic at the centre of leadership

Youth demographic: The African Union is best-placed to ensure national governments commit to youth representation.

Youth demographic: The African Union is best-placed to ensure national governments commit to youth representation. Image: REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye

Chimdi Neliaku
Programmes Director, Leadership Advancement Foundation (LEAF)
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  • Africa is the youngest continent by demographic, but its leadership remains old.
  • The African Union is best-placed to ensure national governments commit to youth representation.
  • The lack of adequate political participation for African youth threatens the fabric of civil society.

African youths make up about 60% of the continent’s population, and by 2030, they are expected to make up 42% of the world’s youth population. Despite Africa’s booming youth demographic, the face of African leadership remains old and does not reflect its populace: the continent’s median age is just over 18 years old, but two-fifths of its leaders are over 70. The African Union (AU) can play a strategic role in closing this representation gap.

The AU consists of the 55 member states that make up the countries of the African continent. One of its objectives is to “to promote democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance”. At the core of democracy is representation, particularly inclusive representation. Yet, Africa’s largest demographic remains one of the most under-represented in decision-making roles in governance. For leadership to thrive and be responsive in a democracy, inclusion is non-negotiable. In guaranteeing inclusion, certain significant groups of people must be considered, such as youth, women, people with disabilities and minorities.

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The AU African Youth Charter affirms that Africa's youth are its biggest resource, with enormous potential as it continues to grow. The AU’s Agenda 2063 states that: “The creativity, energy and innovation of Africa’s youth shall be the driving force behind the continent’s political transformation.” The AU is strategically positioned to lead the charge in ensuring that African governments commit to a percentage of youth representation (including young women) in every national and sub-national cabinet, alongside its other efforts to enhance youth political participation.

The powder keg of under-represented youth

Inter-generational collaboration is vital for national development, as each demography brings a unique value to the decision-making table. While some countries like Namibia have shown commitment to youth participation in political decision-making to some degree, it should not be left to each African country to decide if they will be youth-inclusive or not.

Excluding youths from decision-making roles in politics can have disastrous societal consequences including upheavals, crime, disruptive national protests, widespread youth unemployment and terrorism. Terrorism often has its roots in social and political grievances, and youths who feel excluded from the political process may be more vulnerable to extremist ideologies. Additionally, youth exclusion can create a sense of marginalization and discontent that festers into a powder keg of anger, leading to the eruption of civil conflicts that threaten the fabric of society.

Youth advocacy groups and civil society have consistently clamoured for enhanced youth political participation in African countries. Some of these groups include YIAGA Africa, which spearheaded Nigeria’s ‘Not Too Young to Run’ Movement, various Global Shapers Community Hubs like Nigeria's Abuja Hub, the National Youth Leadership Conference (NYLC), etc. Across the continent, youth activists have also demonstrated exceptional
leadership in championing political reform movements; for example, Y’en a Marre in Senegal, Filimbi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Balai Citoyen in Burkina Faso.

While these organizations and movements have made laudable efforts in promoting the youth leadership cause, these efforts have not yielded the large-scale representational
spread that Africa urgently needs. Furthermore, since the bottom-up approach in engaging African governments has not yielded widespread results, it behooves advocates to develop and deploy other strategies such as a top-down approach, where pressure on African governments to include youths comes from the regional level.

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The African Union's role

The AU is positioned to champion the agenda for each African government to guarantee that at least 10% of their cabinets at national and sub-national levels are youths, including young women. This agreement can take the form of a treaty or policy on youth representation at decision-making levels. This agreement will set the policy direction for African governments and give civil society actors a basis to hold them accountable in fulfilling their commitment. Furthermore, civil society actors can lobby African parliaments to domesticate the ratified agreement as national law, so that it is legally enforceable locally, particularly in countries like Nigeria that require domestication of international treaties in order to have the force of law in local courts.

For those who are averse to quota systems because of the perceived likelihood of mediocrity, it is important to state that only competent and qualified youths should be appointed to these decision-making positions. African governments must be proactive and responsive in introducing policies required to address existing anomalies. When these anomalies are addressed, policies can be reviewed.

The best way to learn is to do. Similarly, the best way to learn to lead is to lead. If Africa wants to sustainably raise a new crop of leaders that are prepared to take over the helm of affairs, it must give young people space to lead. When African governments intentionally give young people the opportunity to make leadership decisions, this will give young people a platform to showcase their abilities and position them to serve in even higher positions of government. This will create a snowball effect that not only improves the quality of decision-making in government through diversity, equity and inclusion, but also gradually changes Africa’s ageing leadership over time to reflect the population.

Africa is in a representation crisis. With youth movements and uprisings emerging across the continent as a result of exclusion from the political space and failure to protect and provide for citizens, stability is threatened.

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What is the World Economic Forum on Africa?

Youth participation in decision-making roles in government must no longer be left to the whims and caprices of African leaders. The AU exists because young African leaders came together to form the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to lead decolonialism efforts, which youths were at the forefront of. Therefore, it is time for the AU to rally African leaders to guarantee at least 10% youth representation in national and sub-national cabinets. By doing this, the AU will be actioning one of its primary objectives of promoting democratic principles and institutions, popular participation and good governance. Most importantly, this will bring the continent a step closer to having a leadership face that reflects its population.

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Related topics:
Youth PerspectivesLeadershipGeographies in Depth
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