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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Is the demographic dividend Africa’s moment?


The finding, according to the UN, shows a massive shift in the word child population towards Africa. Should this be seen as an opportunity or a threat? 

Before delving into dissecting that question, I will keep the records straight on one of the articles that I wrote for this newspaper, published on 31st July, 2014. A reader, Victor Ofuonye – if the name indeed existed – reacted to it. He poured scorn on my article on Goodluck Jonathan’s handling of the abducted Chibok girls. In it, as any reasonable-minded reader has noticed, I recounted the history of Nigeria, showing how things went awry. My choice of words was described as “despicable” and “condemnable” by the author of the letter.  

In a world where excoriation comes quickly and explanation comes lately, I expect the reader to read the nuanced details of what I write to be able to fathom what I meant.  Everyone who knows me can tell that I am a decent man, without meaning to sound condescending. I expect reactions to my articles, but not when they are loads of baloney, which that letter, published on 11 August, 2015, was. 

I am ready to engage any reaction to my article, so long as it is decent regardless of how stinging it is. After all, one cannot be an arctic explorer without expecting some frostbite. The personal and institutional attack of the author showed how out-of-touch a geek he is. I didn’t want to dignify his letter with a response, but upon reflection I realised that this would only increase his poisonous bile. But I will tell him this quotation of the erstwhile US president, George Washington: “The arrows of malevolence however barbed and well-pointed, never can reach the most venerable part of me”.  The author of the letter showed the vacuity and inanition of his mind, which is completely and utterly emetic!   

These are the simple principles in life that guide me: I learned that good invariably triumphs over evil, that having brains is often better than having brawns, and that underdogs in all situations of life need to have unlimited patience, resilience, stubbornness and unshakable hope in order to triumph in the end. I learned to prefer peace to war, cleverness to stupidity, love to hate, sensitivity to stoicism, humanity to pomposity, reconciliation to hostility, harmony to strife, patience to rashness, gregariousness to misanthropy and creation to annihilation. If the author though that I will have some heebie jeebies after reading his letter, he is mistaken, because it suffered from the disadvantage of being wrong.

Without meaning to digress from thrust of this article, let’s look at what the UN report says.  The seismic demographic shift that Africa’s child population will experience, says the report, are among the most important questions facing the continent, and indeed vital issues for the world.

With many African economies growing exponentially, this should be music to the ears of African policymakers, politicians and civil society activists. The potentials of the youths, if harnessed to the fullest, can bring the much-needed socio-economic and political development. But are the youths taking part in fuelling Africa’s growth? There is a fundamental disconnect between the youths and the political class, who are responsible for making decision on their behalf. Many are disillusioned and disenchanted, as political institutions are not working for them. And a young population, or a poorly managed young population, leads to instability and civil conflict.

The terror of the Mungiki sect in Kenya, Al-Shaba’s bloodthirsty young fighters in Somalia, the horrors of Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria. These are all groups essentially driven by youths. In context where the growing youth population had suffered political exclusion and political marginalisation, as was the case in the Arab spring in North Africa, the situation can be a recipe for revolution.


Can Africa pull it off?

Africa can make it if it makes the right investment. Education should be given a top priority. Currently many countries invest heavily on their military. While this is understandable given that we are living in an unpredictable world, we are far behind the era when we should turn a gun towards each other. What Africa needs is booster-effect policies to take growth to stratospheric heights, not states that will be led by people who see the state and the government as “’états c’est moi”, which roughly translate in French that the state is mine; a quote attributed to the former French king, Louis VII. 

That is why leadership is all the more important. According to the former Ghanaian president, John Kufuor,  “African leaders should go through some form of apprenticeship”. To avoid future African leaders from falling victims of the political nostrum of their forebears, this should be pursued. That is why the US Young African Leadership Initiative, which saw hundreds of Africans benefiting from leadership training and internship opportunities in top US institution, should be commended. 

Because it is increasingly becoming clear across Africa that unless political leadership offers young people something to live for, social stresses such as unemployment can make them easy prey to those who offer them something to die for. It is therefore important that in seeking to harness Africa’s demographic dividend, the right leadership and prudent policies are prioritized.

With the right leadership, the destination of the ship can be certain. Youths will be eager to join the bandwagon, rather than risking their lives fighting for violent groups, or using unseaworthy boats to go to Europe, all in the name of shaking off the shackle of poverty, destitution and depravity.

This is where making sure that the economic growth that many African countries are enjoying should be evenly distributed. The growth should trickle town to those living in the bottom docile of society, not the few at the top. Sadly, many people from Algeria to Zimbabwe are worse-off, rather than being better off. Inequality is on the rise across the continent! Public sector workers who are the movers and shakers of government institutions are not feeling the growth in their pay packets. No wonder every now and then they down their tools. If they are lucky to do it in a country where such is allowed they bring that country to a standstill. If they are unlucky, they are mowed down by riot police. 

In Africa there is a growing number of people who are moving from the rural to the urban centres to benefit from their slice of the national cake. And this is mostly fashionable among young people, but the subsequent rural-urban rush has resulted in unmanaged settlement characterised by mega slums such as Kibera in Nairobi, Sodom and Gomorrah in Accra and Mokoko in Lagos. And the UN report warned that attention should be given to Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, as it already has the greatest number of births on the continent and will account for almost one in ten-births globally by 2050. 


The last frontier of growth

The US, European countries and Asia all have their moment of economic turnaround. Many economists are predicting since the turn of the century that “this is Africa’s moment”. South Africa, Ethiopia, Rwandan, Uganda and Nigeria are already setting the pace in terms of economic growth. Certain things are clear and universal in the success stories of these countries: they invest heavily on sectors that attract growth, have business-friendly policies and diversify the measurement of their economies from manufacturing, services and production.

For African countries to be able to register sustained economic growth, they must fight against corruption. The western countries can supplement budgets with aid, but what would happen when the taps are turned off? There should be proper mechanisms put in place to promote transparency and accountability. There should be more regulatory bodies to check the excess of important state bodies. How many African countries are having the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR)?  Very few! In countries where it is available, it is barely functional. 

Accountability should be at the heart of the way governments conduct its business. The opposition parties should be allowed to shadow every minister, as it is the case in Britain. Opposition parties across the African continent are reduced to being clay-legged! Even when they assumed power after election, it takes them time before they starts impacting the lives of citizens, as was the case with Zambia’s long-opposition leader now President, Michael Sata.

Presidents should not run the government as their personal or family fiefdoms. Many heads of state are grooming their sons to succeed them in power, which when pursued up to an illusionary limit, can boomerang. Gamal Mubarak, Karim Wade and Saif Gaddafi knew how it feels when their fathers wanted to hand over power to them, only to be rejected.

African families should not be a cabal of corrupt dynasts passing countries down through generations like bewigged toffs bequeathing valleys full of rickety serfs to their soft-cheeked and silky-palmed progeny. 

The French economist, Thomas Piketty, who is the author of the book Capital in The Twenty-First Century, one of the leading economic blockbusters this year- it is the political bible of many leftist politicians in Europe and those who care about reducing inequality – warned against patrimonial accretion of wealth in the hands of the few. As the wealthy earned unearned privilege, he said, it turns to dust those unctuous political homilies urging hard-working families to aspire upwards.  


Amadou Camara read Political Science and History at the University of The Gambia. He is an intern at the American Corner, Kairaba Avenue.


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