How Might Youth Strengthen the African Union

At the recent African Union Summit, Rwandan President Paul Kagame outlined the path for the African Union’s structural transformation. I also heard a call on youth across the continent to contribute to the “imperative to strengthen our Union.”

As a young African and as an economist, this call to action resonates with me.

Africa is at a crossroad. It needs to recoup its investment in youth through its demographic dividend, meaning the period when growth in the labour force outweighs the population dependent on it. In short, Africa’s 200 million young people is expected to double by 2045 and they need jobs. With supplemental resources being freed up, we should experience more investment in economic transformation and people’s welfare. We need to enable prosperity now for about 10 million young people entering the labour market each year.

President Kagame’s report includes a number of recommendations to make the African Union an agile institution responsive to the needs of youth, women, children and all in a changing world. One of the underlying issues is to find ways to have its citizens want to connect with the Union. In essence, we must focus on Africa first. Yes, nationalism is decried across the world. Yet, is the willingness to give preference to a country or a continent a rejection of others? In my view, it is not. Africa First should not mean Africa alone. But we do need to focus our resources, efforts and strengths internally, including on our youth.

A barrier on our way to achieving that goal as outlined in the report is the lack of two-way communication: the Union’s respective ambassadors may not offer opportunities for youth at national level to connect to the transformation happening at country level. This is apparent in the voter turnout. In South Africa’s 2014 national elections only 33% of the 18 and 19 year olds registered while the average registration rate across all ages is 73%. Also, only 53% of African youth polled showed interest in public affairs. Furthermore, in 16 African countries, the decline in interest has been significant over a decade, dropping from 81% to 58% interest in matters of governance. So while 71% of Africans say they support democracy, not all of them may be making their contribution at the right level.

Another example of youth disconnect is Africa’s physical and intellectual borders that limit youth’s ability to travel across countries. In contrast, one of the tenets of European integration as a union has been centred on the free movement of people. Erasmus, for instance, which is an exchange student programme within the European Union, has allowed 30 years of Europeans to weave themselves into the narrative of the European construction. African border policies must be changed to allow for youth to freely move and enjoy the benefits of a program such as an African version of Erasmus.

A positive is that Africa has leaders that tell the story of what is possible for us, as young people, which allows us to imagine how we can contribute. There will always be opportunities to add a piece to the puzzle not for fame but for the ideals that Cabral, Nkrumah, Nasser, Fanon who showed the tenacity of African youth pioneered. We, as young people, have a responsibility to understand their struggle to understand how far we have travelled and then be willing to create, innovate, contribute, and take chances, too.

Kagame’s report outlined funding issues that can be another call to action for youth and persons of all ages. As they seem to permeate from domestic issues, some African citizens may have the perception that their national and continental issues are dictated by others, those outside the continent. The truth is: We can finance the union. We can finance our economic transformation. Africa First should not be weakened by the narrative of the begging bowl.

If Africa’s middle class will spend $1.4 trillion by 2020, I believe that they can each spare $1 for the African Union. While some may see it as a wasteful expenditure, we cannot wish for a better continent while spending it away. For those who worry about financial corruption, let us demand digital financial services for accountability and transparency.  For many, it might be irrelevant.

But for a growing number and especially the youth, African Union’s success is a safe investment. So if we really believe in it, then 1.2 billion Africans can and should donate a $1 to fund the Union.  It is time we – from youth on up – put our money where our dreams are.

There is urgency to do this now. As President Kagame said, “Continuing to defer reforms to the future is an implicit decision to do nothing.”

I believe in the African Union. It became a reality because young people dreamed it. Now we must ensure that young people are involved, inspired and ready to be part of its transformation, financing, and future.

Carl Manlan is an economist and the chief operating officer of the Ecobank Foundation. He is a 2016 Aspen New Voices Fellow

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Source: Aspen New Voices Fellowship

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