Africa’s leaders have an age problem

Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko
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With more people under age 20 than anywhere else in the world and an overall population expected to hit 2 billion by 2050, Africa’s so-called youth bulge is an opportunity or a problem, depending on how you look at it.

Either way, the gap between the bulge and those who lead them is worth considering. It felt particularly stark at this week’s opening plenary of the World Economic Forum’s Africa Summit, titled “Back to the Future: An Intergenerational Dialogue.”

On stage, South African president Jacob Zuma (aged 73) and Ghanaian vice president Kwesi Amissah-Arthur (aged 64) were primed to speak about how national and regional strategies must better engage Africa’s youth over the coming 25 years. The usual generalities about the need for skills and education, access to the formal economy, and youth participation in shaping the future followed.

What remained unspoken was that both men have existed roughly three times as long as the median aged citizen in their respective countries. It appears to be the case with several of Africa’s larger economies, not so in several of the richer nations. In fact, countries like Japan have the opposite problem: an aging population.

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Of course, that is not to say that advanced age precludes the possibility of leading a younger citizenry to great things. However, with young people making up 60% of the total unemployment on the continent, and lack of opportunity consistently linked to unrest and violence–South Africa’s recent xenophobia redux and the rise of groups like Boko Haram serve as unfortunately ready examples–the need for political leadership that inspires and connects to youth feels more vital than ever.

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There is a lot of talk at the World Economic Forum about creative inspiration, double-digit growth, technological leapfrogging, and skills that address the actual requirements of business today. All of these themes speak directly to the needs of the continent’s 200 million young people. The question is: are their leaders interpreting them in a language they can relate to?