Concerned and interested observers know that the population of unemployed youth on the African continent constitutes a major threat to future peace and stability in the region. On one hand, the teeming youth population can be a blessing if properly harnessed and if we are able to create opportunities where our young people can be gainfully employed and aspire to fulfill their dreams. On the other hand, the fact that millions of African youths are unemployed, untapped, untrained and oftentimes, go to bed hungry, leaves them vulnerable. It also creates a situation where Africa is sitting on a nuclear time-bomb.
While population in many other parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom, Japan, Germany, Spain, etc. are on the decline, Africa’s population which currently stands at about 1.37 billion is projected by the United Nations to experience a slight acceleration of population in the near future. According to the United Nations, Africa’s population is expected to grow annually by at least 42 million people with the total population doubling to 2.5 billion by 2050. Simply, this comes to about 3.5 million more people per month or 85 people per minute. For people who would like to think that these figures are exaggerated, please note that the population of Africa was only about 477 million in 1980.
The main point of this write-up is to draw our attention to both sides of the arguments, i.e. that the population explosion, if properly channeled, can become a vehicle for economic development and social transformation. However, if mis-managed and unplanned for, it would inevitably lead to violence, wars and conflicts in the region. Clearly, what it ultimately means is that, we must invest in social infrastructure and create opportunities so that African youths can legitimately pursue their aspirations and fulfill their potential.
Recently, the African Development Bank (AfDB), launched an initiative intended to create 25 million jobs for young people over the next ten years. This programme by the AfDB also equips 50 million African youths with a mix of hard and soft skills to increase their employability and their entrepreneurial success rate. The Tony Elumelu Foundation is in the seventh phase of its $100 million ten-year programme to train, mentor and fund 10,000 African entrepreneurs, covering the entire African continent. I recognise the AfDB and Tony Elumelu Foundation for taking these noble and bold initiatives to set the pace for youth empowerment in Africa. But it is clear that a lot more needs to be done by individuals, corporate organisations and governments of the respective African countries on the continent.
First, we must invest in facilities that ensure that primary and secondary school attendance is compulsory for all African youth with the most minimal drop-out level. Apart from ensuring that everyone has, at least, a basic education, this will also ensure that our young people do not become the recruitment ground for terror organisations who prey on the young, illiterate and poor. It is clear that the escalating challenges posed by Boko Haram, banditry and kidnapping in Nigeria are because many of the people who are recruited do not even have a basic education.
Second, we must invest in vocational training and provision of internships for the Africa youth. This will help provide the human capital needed for the continent. Post-secondary school, people who do not want to attend tertiary institutions must have the opportunity to attend good vocational schools where they can learn how to become mechanics, plumbers, tailors, electricians, etc. It is also important that we ensure that people who attend vocational schools go through internships and become certified professionals in their chosen fields. This would mean that when you give your car to a mechanic to fix for you, they can charge you for the services and you can have confidence that they are not quacks.
Third, Africans must reduce the cost of governance in order to save up money to invest in critical infrastructure and social services. In order to save up for the rainy day and have enough to invest in education and other social services, we must cut down on our waste and unbridled spending. It goes without saying that a continent that does not save is clearly not planning for the future. The point is that the future will surely come whether we plan for it or not. It is even more pertinent to plan when we remember that many families in Africa still have five children and some men have as many as four wives. It is almost a taboo in Africa if a couple were to decide that they would not have any children.
Fourth, African countries must invest in conventional and alternative energy as nothing meaningful can be achieved without energy. This will also drastically drive down the cost of running businesses and make them more profitable. It goes without saying that the energy crisis in most parts of Africa is the main reason why businesses do not thrive. It is impossible to operate a simple barbing salon and be profitable when you have to run it on generators. Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy, cannot continue to totter around 4000 MW of electricity or continue to suffer constant collapse of its national grid leaving the whole country in total darkness. Nigeria must deal with its energy crisis once and for all for businesses to thrive and be profitable. The future of the African continent largely depends on how well we are able to tackle the energy crisis, encourage investments in renewable energy and considerably reduce the cost of doing business in Africa.
Fifth, we must support and encourage empowerment programmes for African youths across the Continent who have brilliant ideas and provide them with seed capitals for their business start-ups. African governments must collaborate with initiatives such as Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme (‘TEEP’), AfDB, etc and design programmes that support and encourage youth enterprise. We must channel youth energies in the right direction through providing means for them to achieve their potentials on the continent.
Sixth, the African Union (AU) must play a critical role of setting the benchmarks for individual countries and hold the respective governments accountable. The AU needs to be more active in staying in the fore-front of setting the agenda for Africa youths. The AU must continue to work with its counterparts in Europe and other places to look for ways to create a future for the African youth. There must be benchmarks for performance and individual countries and governments must be held accountable.
African countries can choose to bury their heads in the sand, pretend that all is well, continue business as usual and refuse to plan for the future. Should the continent decide to adopt this approach, it is easy to predict the future and life on the continent. We should expect an Africa that is blighted by unrest, poverty and crime. This is what a continent gets when it is filled with a frustrated and discontented youth population. An idle mind is not the devil’s workshop, but the devil’s house.
Second, if we refuse to plan for the future, we can expect that Africa will become a menace to Europe and the kind of events that are happening in Libya with West African migrants being bought and sold as slaves can become the order of the day. For these migrants, they will rather be dead trying than remain in a continent without hope and opportunity.
Third, Africa can become a breeding ground for terrorist organisations, religious extremism and radicalisation. Terror and extremist organisations prey on hungry, illiterate and jobless youth and only need to tell them about going to heaven if they die fighting for God. It is easy to convince a man who has nothing for which to live, whose life has no meaning and who is hungry. This is already happening in Nigeria where the Government is nearly overrun by bandits and unknown gun men.
Fourth, HIV infections will assume a new dimension because the spread of the deadly disease has a direct bearing with the level of poverty. Already, there is an established link between the level of HIV infections and poverty. Unless the cure for HIV is found before then, it is predictable that the quest to end HIV/AIDS infection will remain a tall dream if Africa refuses to plan as a continent.
Fifth, should we refuse to plan for the future, we can expect a continent that is totally ravaged by hunger and where people will feed on their fellow human beings. This might seem totally strange and bizarre but if you can imagine a continent of 2.5 billion people without the requisite social infrastructures or the right environment for people to thrive, grow and conduct their businesses, then you will be able to understand the urgency of the situation.
In the end, the choice is Africa’s. The African youth population explosion can be properly channeled into a vehicle for economic development and social transformation or it can become a catalyst for war, conflict and criminality. We should not be under any illusion that we still have time because 3.5 million children are born on the continent every month. The time to start is now so that we can save ourselves from the consequences of an angry youth population. There ought to be an urgent and extra-ordinary summit of the AU where they invite Tony Elumelu, AfDB, etc. to advise and design a youth strategy that will be adopted by all countries in Africa.