Barack Obama’s Vision & Africa’s Future: The President Understands How The Continent Urgently Needs To Liberate Itself From Old Industries And Strongmen
President Obama may have found the key to unlocking Africa’s economic potential while liberating it from ossified leadership: sparking the fuller economic and political participation of the continent’s now-frustrated youth.
Such an emergence is overdue. In 2009, when Obama addressed Ghana’s parliament, he denounced corruption and misgovernment in Africa, saying Africa doesn’t need “strong men” but “strong institutions.”
Yet six long years later, as Obama revisited the continent last and this week, many of the same unsavory characters are still around — aging, and in most cases consolidating their hold on power. To name a few: Yoweri Museveni, who’s ruled Uganda since 1986; Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s supremo since 1994; Paul Biya, lording over Cameroon since 1982; Teodoro Obiang Mbasogo, fleecing Equatorial Guinea since 1979.
Change is far less likely to come from within an aging generation than from the next one. With over a billion people, Africa also has the world’s most youthful population; 200 million are aged between 15 and 24, according to the African Development Bank.
But the economic power of the continent typically remains consolidated in the hands of the powers that be — who are the powers that have been. Congo’s minerals alone are estimated at roughly $25 trillion; Nigeria is the world’s 12th largest oil producer.
Those gold-mine industries reward entrenched power. It is youth — who think internationally and understand technology better than their elders — who can help unstick national economies.
Of course, there are risks of placing bets on the young, especially in a continent where the quality of education and training remain spotty. Youth unemployment ranges from 60% in South Africa to over 80% in Uganda. A World Bank survey in 2011 found that 40% of the youth who join rebel armies cited unemployment as a motivator.
“I suggest to you that the most urgent task facing Africa today and for decades ahead is to create opportunity for this next generation,” Obama said this week in Ethiopia.
America cannot manage that process from afar — but even with modest investments, it can do more than many realize. Last year, the Obama administration launched a program called the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. It’s designed to annually bring 500 — eventually 1,000 — outstanding youth leaders for several weeks of skills-training at U.S. colleges.
Obama, of course, is in a unique position to understand the transformative powers of such initiatives. It was an educational program that brought a young Kenyan named Barack Obama to study in the U.S.; he went on to meet and marry a Kansan named Ann Dunham.
Barack Sr. ended up abandoning his wife and son; in Kenya, he became an important economist.
Who knows how many future leaders, in politics and business, could be trained by the Mandela Fellowship?
Crucial to sparking constructive change among young Africans is bringing increasingly independent women into the fray. On his Africa trip, Obama said it was “stupid” to expect victory “if half your team is not playing.” He is of course correct. Which is why it was heartening that in 2014, half of Mandela Fellows were women.
Last year, when Burkina Faso’s dictator of 27 years tried to change the constitution so he could extend his regime, the youth chased him into exile. This October, the country holds its first freely contested elections.
Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister, who was murdered in 1961 after Western intervention, once said that Africa will one day write its own history.
Africa’s youth are poised to launch that narrative. In Barack Obama, a man who owes half of his very identity to the continent, they’ve found a formidable ally who promises to remain engaged even after he leaves office in 2017.
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