The idea that Africa’s youth bulge is the key to sustained economic growth—a so-called demographic dividend—is a popular talking point for aging African leaders who coopt such language in an effort to signal faith and optimism in the next generation. This was particularly evident in 2017, when African heads of state adopted “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in the Youth” as the year’s official theme for the African Union.
While gestures toward youth empowerment are welcome, one awkward fact stands out: Africa—the youngest continent in the world—plays host to some of the oldest and longest-serving political leaders.
And while the historic election of young people such as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, elected chancellor in 2017 at the age of 31, or El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, 37 when he became president, make headlines elsewhere, it is troubling that this doesn’t occur on a continent where the median age is 19. It is worth noting that Africa does play host to young leaders, including 43-year-old Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, though these are few and far between.
Africa’s best and brightest have simply lost faith in their governments because of corruption and an entrenched culture of conformity that shows deference to seniority. But they also have themselves to blame—for turning to the private sector or civil society in an effort to become successful social entrepreneurs rather than fighting for political change. This pursuit of “heropreneurship” is a self-inflicted barrier to change.
Increasingly, Africa’s brightest young minds are channeling their focus toward entrepreneurship as a means to create more just and equitable societies.
Much of this can be attributed to the perceived dysfunction of the public sector over the comparatively robust nongovernment sectors.
Underpinned by the belief that the market is better positioned than government to bring change, social entrepreneurship—the idea of developing a financially sustainable business with a social cause—assumes that entrenched inequality can be simply reversed by market forces such as competition, franchising, and customer orientation.
Take, for example, a social enterprise that provides Internet access to otherwise disconnected townships. Even if it were to reach 10,000 people, an honorable feat by any measure, it still pales in comparison to the even larger swath of people that remain disconnected. This is because lack of Internet access, particularly in remote communities, is often shaped by the dysfunction of larger systems that a single social enterprise is not built to address. Despite this, business leaders and start-up incubators would encourage such an enterprise to pursue scale and incremental growth—while ignoring the root causes at play.
The inconvenient truth is that dismantling entrenched inequality requires a good deal of unpaid work. This typically involves citizen coalitions, movements, and the passing of laws—none of which play to the traditional strengths of start-up businesses.
Marshall Ganz, who is widely cited as the grassroots organizer behind the historic 2008 presidential campaign of former U.S. President Barack Obama, wrote in a co-authored article that social entrepreneurship “has done little to solve the systemic social problems it purports to address” and that its increasing popularity “distracts from and undermines the critical role of an organized citizenry, political action, and democratic government in achieving systemic social change.” This is particularly important in Africa, where the persistence of social ills is intricately tied to the extreme failures of larger systems and institutions.
The continent’s young change-makers must go beyond a laissez-faire approach to social change which discounts the role of power and politics and consider redirecting their unique skills, passion, and know-how into the most powerful institution for social change: government.
In 2016, Daniela Papi-Thornton, formerly the deputy director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, argued that “we’ve entered an era of heropreneurship,” in reference to the growing hero-worshipping and self-promotion evident among seemingly well-intended change-makers. This phenomenon has become common among young Africans who would much rather carve a celebrated public identity—the type that often lends itself to a large social media following and a feature on “30 Under 30” lists—over the thought of having to work through the crowded and dysfunctional public-sector machinery.
The danger of this complex is that it redirects social change efforts away from the interests of the poor and marginalized. To truly bring about an equitable and thriving Africa, young African change-makers need to discard the dominant paradigm around heropreneurship and individualism and instead consider placing their efforts in the public sector, which has the mandate, funding, and capacity to deliver social change.
In doing so, they would need to find their peace with working behind the scenes and away from the spotlight. This could either be as a public-sector worker or perhaps as part of a larger campaign to help elect a progressive candidate. If they opt to run themselves, it also means reconciling themselves with the thought of losing and accepting that such a loss is not career-ending.
Even if young Africans do move beyond the fantasy of heropreneurship, their participation in government could still be compromised. Sadly, African governments are ranked as some of the most corrupt in the world. Across much of the continent, government is considered a space where elites—often drawn on family, clan, ethnic, or religious lines—can cement their authority even further. In many countries, family dynasties have made it nearly impossible for new and more progressive voices to enter the fray.
However, Nigerian political strategist Adebola Williams, 33, who co-founded Enough is Enough, a coalition of youth advocacy groups seeking to push for more young Africans into politics, told Foreign Policy that “we can’t always expect change at our own terms.” Williams would know this, as a young African who is credited with having helped elect two presidents. He was the communications manager for Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari.
He cited the example of Obiageli Ezekwesili, who held two ministerial postings in the Nigerian government: minister of solid minerals and minister of education. A staunch advocate for government transparency, Ezekwesili quickly became a lone actor in a time when allowing public funds to be hemorrhaged recklessly was the norm. While Ezekwesili could easily have bowed to internal pressures, she opted for the harder road. She quickly sanitized the public procurement process to free it from corruption and passed a series of laws aimed at implementing of the first global transparency standards in the energy and natural resources sector, an effort that earned her the name “Madam Due Process.”
Lindiwe Mazibuko, who at 31 became the first black woman elected as opposition leader in the South African Parliament, was quickly identified as a rising star in the ranks of the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. She successfully ran in the 2009 general elections and was subsequently appointed shadow deputy minister of communications before assuming the reins as opposition leader in Parliament. She later co-founded the Apolitical Academy with the aim of identifying and nurturing the next generation of ethical public leaders after she left Parliament.
“By investing in young ethical and transformational leaders, we hope to dispel the long-held myths about leadership that tell young people that they are the leaders of tomorrow, as opposed to them being the leaders the world needs today,” Mazibuko wrote in an email. “We know that, in Africa in particular, the only way for young people to participate is to get involved, and not wait for their leadership paths to be dictated by gatekeepers largely interested in maintaining the status quo,” she added.
In addition to dealing with corruption, some aspiring young politicians face physical threats. Whether it is a crackdown on student activism or imprisonment of artists, suppression of opposition voices across the continent is common. Young Africans know all too well the fate of those who have suffered defeat at the hands of autocratic leaders and their allies. Many well-intended activists were ultimately made fugitives in their own countries, raising the question of whether the cost of seeking public office is too great.
In more recent decades, the proliferation of small arms across the continent, leading to widespread violence during elections, has only reinforced the bleak outlook that young Africans have on government. Between 2011 and 2017, almost all of the 100 elections held in 44 African countries were plagued by some degree of prolonged violence. The reality is that a run for government can place young people in the crosshairs of violent nonstate actors, contributing to a life of heightening insecurity for them and their families.
The final barrier to youth involvement in politics is the fact that most African societies are still built on systems of seniority, which rarely allow for the transfer of any real power to young people.
“From when we are young, we are reminded to respect our elders,” said Chioma Agwuegbo, who helps lead the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign to reduce the age limit for running for elected office in Africa. The campaign, which was originally conceived to reduce the age limit for the Nigerian presidency from its original threshold of 40, has since expanded its focus to Senegal, Agwuegbo told Foreign Policy, in the hopes of spurring similar changes throughout a continent where age limits poses structural barriers for young people seeking office.
More often, there is a code of quiet deference: Young Africans pursuing careers in the public sector are expected to look the other way when encountering corruption in order to ensure their career longevity.
For those seeking change, a more principled approach may be taken as arrogance or disregard for cultural norms that value reverence for elders. Indeed, the cultural codes in many African countries that prize seniority don’t equip young people with the means to challenge these systems, or give the establishment any incentive to listen to young people’s concerns.
In the campaign’s first win, #NotTooYoungToRun’s age-limit bill was signed into law on March 31, 2018, by Nigeria’s then 75-year-old president, Muhammadu Buhari. That campaign demonstrates the power of youth coalitions in helping redesign political systems to operate more inclusively and allow for greater participation of an overwhelmingly young population.
Although their representation in the halls of government might suggest otherwise, young Africans are the bedrock of the continent’s future—both economically and politically. They must look beyond the exorbitant costs of running for public office, endemic corruption, and threats of violence and not be fooled by the false promise of becoming the next heropreneur; if they want to achieve political change, they will have to match their good intentions with a sound strategy—and ultimately enter the political arena.
By Abdullahi Alim
The author leads the World Economic Forum’s network of emerging young leaders, known as the Global Shapers, across Africa and the Middle East. Twitter: @abdullahialim