Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, May 17, 2010

Decade of African Youth

Ken Wiwa [left] is a Nigerian activist and author. His father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist from the Niger Delta region of Nigeria, was arrested and hung in 1995 by the Abacha government.

Africa’s youth: an energy to liberate or detonate
Like most Africans nowadays, I was not yet born during the colonial era.

By 1968, most of Africa had been liberated from European rule and I entered the world in the middle of Nigeria’s civil war (its first and, to date, only one). Conventional wisdom then had it that once freed of colonial bondage, Africa would use its resource advantage to make a great leap forward. The 2000s would be Africa’s century.

Despite the subsequent decades of underdevelopment, some still believe that this will be Africa’s century…

Another generation is being mass-produced, surfing on a wave of technological advance, presenting a demographic time bomb that threatens to detonate everything that has gone before them. But where, I wonder, are the younger, vibrant leaders who can harness the energy of Africa’s increasingly youthful, urban and restless societies?

It was not always like this. If I rewind the Pathé Newsreels of African history, I see young Turks such as, yes, Moammar Gadhafi and Robert Mugabe, not to mention the likes of Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya) and Steve Biko (South Africa). There they are, all in their 20s and 30s, daring to stand up to the old order, leading their countries out of the bondage of colonialism, rejecting their parents’ institutionalized passivism and mobilizing moral outrage to separate from a Europe exhausted by the Second World War…

Yet the seeds of the continent’s future dysfunctions had already been sown. The geopolitics of the postwar world meant that East and West would play chess with the map of Africa, propping up dictators such as Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now Congo), Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam or the notorious, flesh-eating Jean-Bédel Bokassa in the Central African Republic. The world waged its Cold War and turned its back on the African people.

Corruption and deficits of democracy, infrastructure and human development grew. Many African countries became dependent on a drip feed of aid and toxic loans while foreign corporations plundered Africa’s natural resources under the protection of repressive regime. The continent’s well-trained middle class voted with their feet, going abroad for professional fulfillment…

My… return came courtesy of an invitation of Nigeria’s then-president Olusegun Obasanjo. He was like many of his generation who had struggled to save or liberate their countries and then believed that only they had the experience and knowledge to steer the ship of state. As his Special Assistant on Peace, Reconciliation and Conflict Resolution, one of my first unofficial tasks was to try to reconcile the combative president and his equally combustible son. Along the way, Mr. Obasanjo confided in me that it was time “we prepared your generation for leadership.” At this point, he had been at the centre of Nigeria’s affairs for only 40 years...

Africa’s natural and human resources confirm its enduring importance to the world. Sixty per cent of the world’s natural resources reside in Africa….

Yet Africans are still eager to get out, to go to Europe, North America or, increasingly, Asia…

Until the turn of the new century, Africa was still mostly a communications backwater. In-country phone calls were hard enough, but if I wanted to call Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, the call had to be routed through an exchange in Europe. Information moved at a geriatric pace. Now, speaking to my brothers and sisters in Accra, Nairobi or Cape Town by cellphone is routine. Additionally, the Internet has opened up Africa to Africans and the world. We no longer have to rely on the BBC World Service to tell us what is happening in our own countries…

Most Africans now live in cities…

Social media have enabled us to bypass the limitations and biases of traditional media…

Local distribution networks and channels are piping locally produced music and film into fertile and impressionable minds, through cable providers such as DSTV and stations such as Channel O and Africa Magic, where African actors and musicians are showcased side by side with cultural producers from the West. The film industry here – Nollywood – is only the most celebrated example.

Yet one can get carried away by the vibrant viewpoints these next-generation griots bring to the mix.

The question I keep asking myself is how these cultural networks will engage with the old political order. Do any of my colleagues in government have the vision and conceptual tools to channel this youthful energy to the common good?…

The continent is vast, rich in contradictions, complex yet simple. It is black and white, rich and poor, Muslim and Christian, north and south. It is a place that invites but defies stereotyping. As we like to say here, what you see is what you don’t get. Whether it can fulfill the claims of its boosters, only time can tell. What could be decisive is whether Africa’s leaders, new and old, learn to see the burgeoning young population as a challenge and opportunity, to be mobilized for nation building and economic success, rather than as a threat to self-serving elites.

See also: Bring Back the Old Guys or Bring in the New Ones?
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