Africa’s young people need inspirational leaders, not old autocrats

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.com PLC.

(L-R) Chad's president, Idriss Déby, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attend a press conference. Paris, 28 August. [Yoan Valat/ EPA]

Investing in youth is essential for Africa’s future, but what’s even more essential is letting inspirational and transformational leaders come forth, writes Shada Islam.

Shada Islam is the director of Europe & Geopolitics at Friends of Europe.

African and European leaders meeting for their fifth summit next week will focus on ways of providing the continent’s young people with education, jobs and hope.

Investing in youth is essential for Africa’s future. But it is not enough. In order to thrive and prosper, Africa’s young people need inspirational and transformational leaders, not tired old autocrats.

Many young Africans are well-informed, engaged in politics and business and are using new digital and communication technologies to make huge strides as innovators and entrepreneurs.

Also, despite an economic slowdown due to falling commodity prices, African economies are on average still notching up impressive growth rates of up to 4%, higher than the global average. Many countries are making improvements in macroeconomic management, governance and the business environment.

But with the continent’s population of 1.2 billion set to more than double by 2050, Africa’s continued development requires sweeping changes on many fronts.

Sustainable development and inclusive growth, peace and security and environmental protection are important. With official development assistance on the decline, private sector financing is crucial. Digital technologies offer immense opportunities for accelerating implementation of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. More money and efforts need to go into education and skills development.

All these issues are quite rightly on the agenda of the Europe-Africa summit in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, on 29‒30 November.

The truth is simple, however: it’s the quality of Africa’s leaders that will determine the future of the continent – and the life decisions made by young Africans.

European governments, fretting over the continued arrival of African migrants on their shores, are busy thinking up new trust funds, Marshall Plans and investment initiatives to create new jobs and opportunities on the continent.

More jobs are certainly needed for Africa’s growing legion of young people. But determined and talented young people will continue to look for greener pastures if they are frustrated at home by corruption, nepotism and lack of respect for the rule of law.

Popular demands for the ouster of Robert Mugabe as president after 37 years in power are a powerful indication of peoples’ desire for a shake-up of the tired and discredited leadership model prevalent in many countries across the continent.

In addition to Mugabe, five other African leaders, including Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo who has ruled Equatorial Guinea for 38 years, have been in charge for more than 30 years either by suppressing the opposition or manipulating time limits.

Representatives of African and European youth organisations, which met in Abidjan in October to craft their contribution to the Europe-Africa summit, have called for a “meaningful participation” of young people in society, saying that young people who are eligible to vote should also be eligible to stand for election.

Young Africans living in Europe also insist that good governance is key to Africa’s future and defines the life decisions made by the continent’s young people.

The good news is that the EU has put good governance, democracy and the rule of law high up on its foreign and development policy agenda. The recently-adopted European Consensus on Development promises to promote accountable and transparent institutions, including national parliaments, and foster participatory decision-making and public access to information.

The need for independent and impartial courts and fair justice, including access to legal assistance, is spotlighted. The EU has also promised to support initiatives to tackle corruption and to introduce more transparency and accountability over public funding and in the delivery of public services.

Turning these principles into action isn’t easy, however. Too much money is still channelled through national governments, bureaucracy and red tape abound and EU policymakers engage primarily with state officials, not business leaders, civil society organisations or sub-national entities.

“Frank discussions” on human rights or governance may sound good but decisions on sanctions against regimes which breach governance standards are difficult to take and not easy to enforce. Sanctions, unless carefully calibrated can also end up hurting ordinary people rather than autocrats and their families.

The EU and European governments would be better advised to find new ways of engaging more directly with civil society and business leaders and to invest in educational and vocational universities and scholarship programmes for students. They should also make it easier for young people to become entrepreneurs and secure access to funds.

Much has changed in Europe and Africa since the first Europe-Africa summit was held in Cairo in 2000. With migration issues now top of the EU agenda, Africa is once again in the spotlight as European governments seek to curb the massive arrival of young Africans.

Investing in Africa is not just about stopping migration, however. With its young population, access to technology, improvements in infrastructure, health and education, Africa is on the cusp of a new, more dynamic era. With the right policies and an emphasis on good governance, Europe can help ensure that change and transformation in Africa happens faster.