The Foreign Policy magazine recently published an intriguing article, which revealed that for all its youthfulness (average age 19), Africa also has the oldest leaders (average age 62).
I was thinking about this depressing revelation when I went to facilitate a session at the National Youth Conference, hosted at Makerere University, last week. About 100 youth leaders, activists, students and entrepreneurs pooled from around the country gathered there to discuss and assess the effectiveness of Uganda’s education system in preparing learners for the competitive and globalised labour market.
But before we get into the gist of the matter, here are some statistics to jolt you: 60 per cent of African youth are aged 25 and below. And as of today, 54 million young Africans are out of school or are without jobs. The face of a migrant in Africa is that of a young person. So it is clear that we are short on opportunities.
But here is more: To create and expand the scope of opportunities, global superpower, China, with all its excellent universities, sends 600,000 students abroad every year. All of Africa sends out only about 80,000. What do the Chinese know about the future that we are missing?
I am convinced that our generation’s greatest challenge is to get the privileged minority to create opportunities for the deprived majority. In places where systems work, states lead in the creation of opportunities. But here it is a little more complicated because it could in fact be argued that states and their agents are leading the deprivation campaign.
So to guide the discussion, I prompted the participants with the question: What do you imagine Uganda should look like in 2040? I had this discussion with a friend, a professional educationist, who is well versed with the art of backward planning. She insists that thinking 20 years ahead allows you to then create pathways to achieve that vision.
Basically, if you cannot imagine it, then you cannot craft it. The challenges we are facing today, from the congestion and chaos on our roads and cities, to growing unemployment, the crisis that is our health system and an education system on life support, do not suggest that many people who were in office 20 years ago imagined what 2020 would or should look like.
The tragedy for most of the continent is that a lot of those same people are still in office today. So will it get better? You look at young people across Africa and the one thing that binds us are the systemic challenges and clogged bureaucracies that limit opportunity on the one hand and the numerous potential and opportunities that those same challenges present.
Whether it is access to affordable quality healthcare, equity and quality in education, decent housing, the business and entrepreneurship climate, incomes and quality of life, or complicated discussions about the contradictions in human rights and governance – we are yoked. So we must imagine 2040 and try to craft the future together.
On average, more than three quarters of the population in countries across Africa will outlive their respective presidents and the senior bureaucrats currently striding the corridors of power.
But how much work are we putting in to get ready for that moment and ensure that we aren’t having these same discussions in 2040?
Are we imagining that far? The 4th Industrial Revolution and Robotics and Artificial Intelligence and Big Data? About opportunities to build cross-border enterprises and opening markets for the future of work? About decolonising and synching our education systems to upskill? About collaborations in local science and medicine that transition to big pharma?
About how children in Asia have been pulling ahead of us for decades now? Or shall we blame those in power today, in much the same way that they too have perfected the art of passing the buck to the past?
On a continent where governments literally wield the most power in every aspect, they must take a lead on these discussions. And when they can’t or aren’t willing to, young people, who will be here much longer than those in power, must push them to, in whatever spaces exist or don’t yet.
It is Frantz Fanon who said, “Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it.”
What is our mission and how do we fulfil it, because to betray it is fatal.
Mr Rukwengye is the founder, Boundless Minds.