In Africa, several commitments, policies and programmes on youth education, employment and empowerment have been prioritised at all levels to improve the livelihoods of young people. Recently, the AU Heads of State and Government at their 17th ordinary session in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, considered the issue of accelerating youth empowerment for sustainable development and poverty alleviation. However, these initiatives have yet to translate into their desired outcomes. Thus, innovative efforts are still required, especially at a time when the youth population continues to increase.
African countries need to act and respond to the needs of the youth, particularly after the storm triggered by the self-immolation of a young Tunisian university graduate and fruit seller that changed the political leadership structures in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and promoted new ideas for reforms in Algeria and Morocco. The young Tunisian graduate Mohammed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire out of a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, has become a symbol of change for North African and Arab youth. Furthermore, his self-immolation resulted in the crumbling of personal empires built on fear and suppression in North Africa.
What the North African leaders failed to read were the needs of their electorate and the insecure situation of unemployed youth. If they had been able to read the demography of their countries and the number of unemployed youth they could have avoided such a disgrace. Due to their failures to properly handle their youth and create just and equitable job opportunities, they paid the ultimate price.
It was due to this fact that the armies of unemployed youth became a catalyst for the North African revolutions. Unemployed youth connectivity, especially through the Internet, and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, increased the momentum. Widespread corruption and poor governance also united the youth against the systems that were in place in their countries. High and deep-rooted economic inequity made the situation ripe for revolutionary change.
The leaders of North Africa failed to recognise the potential demographic dividend that could have been exploited through creating a social, economic and political environment that would have enabled young people to constructively engage in activities contributing to the growth and economic development of their respective countries.
Youth unemployment in Africa reflects the weakness of economic growth as well as government policies. In Africa, economic growth on average is not more than five per cent per year. This growth usually does not result in any significant creation of employment for wealth or improved welfare for ordinary Africans. Consequently, high youth unemployment has become a common phenomenon in Africa.
Apart from policy failures or inadequacies to meet the need of the middle class, young people are not acquiring the skills or experience needed to drive their national economies forward. In other words, the youth in these countries have become marginalised. There are many factors that explain this. On the one hand it may be employers look for skills and experience and regard young jobseekers as unskilled, inexperienced consider them to be unwanted risks. In addition to this situation, schooling in Africa is not a reliable test of capabilities, and low school quality feeds into poor workplace learning capacity. Thus, entry of the youth into the labour market is very limited. Corruption and nepotism also contribute a great deal to lack of equal opportunities for employment and broad resentment.
In Africa, many things require drastic change. For instance the educational curriculum needs to be redefined in a way that prepares the youth for entrepreneurial activities and gears them for self-employment. If a government cannot create job opportunities for a country’s youth it results in hopelessness as was evidenced in Tunisia. In addition to unemployment, a sense that government does not offer fair play or justice to its citizenry is another big cause of frustration and hopelessness among the youth. Accordingly even if a government does not actively pursue policies geared toward job creation, it can avoid popular resentment by ensuring that all citizens have equal opportunity to be employed whenever vacancies are available in the labour market. It is therefore necessary that corruption and, nepotism are properly dealt with.
In societies where there is deep-rooted inequality and the increasing perception that fair play is missing from the rules of the game, as in many African countries, there exists the potential to trigger the kind of public demand for change witnessed in North Africa. Zero-tolerance for corruption, coupled with fair play is the main ingredients for addressing the needs of young people in Africa. If equal opportunity and justice are lacking, loss of hope is the only outcome. It is this sense of hopelessness that triggers extreme responses. This is what happened to Mohammed Bouazizi of Tunisia.
Therefore, economic empowerment needs to be given much more attention than they have received so far. This needs to be accompanied by political empowerment which itself can create opportunities for facilitating economic empowerment. It is however important that political empowerment needs to be based on authentic forms of participation that ensure that the voices of the youth are adequately reflected in government policies and decisions. Therefore, economic empowerment should be given particular attention and political empowerment for youth must become a reality.
- Abebe Aynet, Intern, Peace and Security Council Report Programme, Institute for Security Studies Addis Ababa Office. This article first appeared on the ISS website. It is republished here with the permission of ISS www.issafrica.org.