And What About Africa’s Youth Class?
In recent times, there has been much talk about Africa’s emerging middle class and its potential to foster reform on the continent. However, little emphasis has been laid on the fact that Africa is also experiencing a youth bulge. In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, one in three persons is between the ages of 10 and 24; 75 percent of Kenya’s population is under thirty. The Population Reference Bureau says that “one-half of the population is below age 25, a powerful engine of renewal for the country”.
While these figures have become a source of optimism, they have also become a source of concern. Uganda, the country with the highest youth population in the world (over 80%) also has the highest rate of youth unemployment in the region. Evidently, whatever success Africa achieves in the coming decades will largely be undermined if her youths cannot sustain themselves leading to an entrenched dependency crisis where the young population in the labour force can neither support themselves nor care for their dependents. This, however, is not the future Africa envisions.
The term “youth class” is somewhat misleading because inequality still prevails in this class. Some youths, enjoying social amenities and quality education, have a better chance at self-sufficiency than their counterparts who know too well about deprivation and have little or no access to resources. It also masks the diverse forms youth activism has taken in Africa’s 54 countries, some of which can hardly be described as democratic; some with a history of civil war and unrest and others with a history of relative political stability. In addition, youths from different regions do not share a common culture and common values. Nevertheless, Africa’s youths remain a potent force. In post-independence Africa with a history of agricultural expansion and contraction, debt crises, war, hunger, HIV, democratic struggles and a host of other independence disappointments, the contingency of the time period is what brings the youth together in the same way that decades ago, their parents joined movements to protest against colonial governments.
It is worthy of note that some of the issues that youths are protesting against are the very issues that have not taken the youth factor and the average citizen into account. Generally, as Afro-optimism resurges, terms like “home-grown solutions”, “capacity building”, and “youth-led development” are beginning to recur in rhetoric and practice. The success of any development schemes will depend on how well they are able to bridge the inequality gap and empower youths from all socio-economic classes.
As many writers (including our very own) continue to portray Africa’s youth in a hopeful light, labelling them as agents of Africa’s rebirth and drivers of economic growth , many young Africans are increasingly wondering what part they will play in this success story. Others have moved right into action, writing the very plot that becomes narrated in academia and the media. It is impossible to talk about the youth without talking about social media and the ways youths have been able to leverage social networking as a constant source of information and an avenue for mobilization. In March 2010, when Nigeria’s youths marched in front of the National Assembly to say “Enough is Enough” it was clear that they had begun to insert themselves in civil society debates. This group would later go on to monitor the 2011 elections, using social media to reach out to their peers, encouraging them to vote and join the movement for good governance in Nigeria. To the east of the continent, Kuweni Serious [translated as “guys, let’s get serious”] a youth group in Kenya released a thought-provoking YouTube video in 2010 (which was shared on Facebook and other platforms) telling their peers that “if this country burns, we burn with it.”
These same power messages were on the minds of some of Africa’s brightest as they convened in Cambridge and Bretton Woods in March 2011. These young students, many of them undergraduates and graduates in the Diaspora harboured big dreams for their home countries and were not waiting to graduate and relocate home to realize these dreams. As they shared their plans for waste management, public health, education and social entrepreneurship projects, storm clouds of hope began to gather and in their wake rained feelings of consolation, invincibility and infinite possibility from the hopeful message summed up in their declaration- “the Africa we desire can be won. It exists; it is real; it is possible. It is ours.”
Below are only some of the initiatives African and African Diaspora’s youths presented at the symposium:
- Harambe Nigeria is an agri-business initiative aimed at equipping young Nigerians with the tools they need to thrive in the agricultural sector. In a country blessed with agricultural resources but overly reliant on oil, the success of agriculture will help to diversify the economy and provide an alternative means of livelihood for many of the unemployed youths. Harambe Nigeria has succeeded in engaging hundreds of youths, providing training programs and providing opportunities for agri-entrepreneurship opportunities and is now in the process of recruiting more members.
- Harambe Cameroun and Youth Consortium for Progress in the Gambia- in addition to educational programs- have entrepreneurship competitions to encourage youths develop business plans which will address social problems. The former’s motto best explains their philosophy: Transforming our problems into opportunities and the latter’s describes the audacity of the youth class: We dare!
Africa’s youth class -as diverse as that class is-is the class of right now. They stopped seeing themselves as leaders of tomorrow and have begun right away to assume leadership positions and place themselves at the centre of development decisions in their communities. As more African diaspora youth feeling out of place in the land of their educational sojourn begin to seek ways to engage with the continent and apply the skills they’ve learned, and as their counterparts on the continent organize rallies, go out to vote and hop on social innovation programs, the youth voice is becoming a loud voice on the continent.
As the voices are becoming amplified, the message has gone ahead of the voices, picking willing and able youths along the way, grooming them to run faster than before. To be sure, the ‘how’ matters and some initiatives have been less efficient than others in providing immediate and long-term solutions to problems that have plagued their societies. But the need to act and to produce successful results have become all the more imperative; signalling to all the great importance of the times and the very fact that Africa’s youth class cannot be ignored.