By Mo Ibrahim
Africa is in the middle of an amazing demographic shift. Our continent is the only one where the size of the younger generation is rising significantly. Our population is already 16 years younger than in China, and this is only the beginning. Within less than three generations, four out of ten of the world’s youth will live on our continent. This demographic dividend — and the energy and enthusiasm it brings — offers us a unique advantage which other continents facing the prospect of a rapidly aging population and dwindling workforce can only envy. In a world changing with breakneck speed, it is young people who are best equipped to identify and deliver fresh solutions to our problems.
But we will only fully reap these benefits if we listen to young people, engage with them and provide the education, skills and support they need to prosper. Despite progress, we continue to fail to rise to this challenge. Young people, all too often, find their interests overlooked and their voices ignored. There can be no clearer symbol of this disconnect than the age of those who continue to set the direction of our countries and their citizens. For while the median age of Africa’s population is now 20 and falling, the average age of our continent’s leaders is around 60. Africa must ask itself why our continent appears so frightened of giving the younger generation a chance. I am not arguing, of course, that teenagers should be put in charge of countries. Experience counts in government even more than in business.
Africa must ask itself why our continent appears so frightened of giving the younger generation a chance. After all, David Cameron and Tony Blair both became UK Prime Ministers for the first time when they were 43. Barack Obama first became President of the United States at the age of 47. Even more importantly, he will step down, because of the constitution, eight years after he entered the White House. In contrast, Africa has just witnessed an 89-year old sworn in as President of Zimbabwe, a post he first gained 25 years ago. And this was after he had already led his country as Prime Minister for nearly a decade.
The truth is that it is not so much the age that our leaders first come to power which is the problem but their reluctance to relinquish it. Where necessary, constitutional terms are altered to allow them to continue long after they were supposed to step down. The result is that political power lies in the hands of aging leaders who have little knowledge or interest in the ambitions and concerns of younger generations — and sadly even less interest in passing on the reins of leadership.