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Honoring Mo Ibrahim; Honoring Africa’s Youth

The Freedom Award is the International Republican Institute’s highest honor, and it singles out those leaders who are making the greatest contributions to democracy and human liberty. 

For example, we’ve honored U.S. presidents like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and foreign leaders like Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and El Salvador’s Alfredo F. Cristiani.

The Freedom Award also serves to draw attention to turning points in the democratic story.  For example, we’ve honored the men and women of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Movement and Burma’s Aung Sun Suu Kyi, during her days as a political prisoner.

This year, by honoring Mo Ibrahim, Sudanese-born business pioneer and philanthropist, we’re doing both.  More than any other leader on the scene today, through his voice and his generosity, Dr. Ibrahim is both drawing attention to the leadership challenges holding Africa back from its vast potential and also working to tackle them.

Africa’s Crossroads Moment

In many ways, this decade is Africa’s “crossroads moment.”  On one hand, six of the 12 fastest growing economies are in Africa.  At a time when much of the world’s workforce is beginning to grow older, Africa has millions of young people—brimming with ideas, ideals and energy—just entering adulthood.  Further, the rapidly growing availability of mobile phones and inexpensive social media tools are connecting Africans to each other, and to their peers around the world, in ways that seemed entirely implausible just several years ago.

On the other hand, Africa is also seeing a growing disconnect between its youth, who are eager for greater freedoms and greater accountability from their leaders, and the government leaders and institutions that are supposed to serve them.  As Dr. Ibrahim often notes, the median age of an African is around 19, but the median age of an African head of state is older than 60.  That gap may be Africa’s greatest challenge.  It represents a gulf that must be crossed if Africa is going to take its rightful place in the world.

Dr. Ibrahim has also noted that in less then three generations, 40 percent of the world’s young people will live in Africa.  Eighty percent of Kenyans are under 35.  The median age of a Tanzanian has fallen to 17, and will likely continue to drop through 2020.  And in 15 sub-Saharan African countries, half the population is younger than 18.

Demonstrable Restlessness

And yet, even as Africa enters its most auspicious moment, there’s also a sense of restlessness across the continent, especially amongst its youth.  Demographics alone would suggest that government leaders would become sensitive to the needs of young people and more connected to their dreams for the continent’s future.  There’s a great deal of evidence to suggest the opposite—that too many leaders are less interested in harnessing the power of youth, and more interested in preserving their own power and status. 

Competitive elections that provide real opportunities for voters (most of whom are young) are far from commonplace.  Of the world’s longest serving leaders, five out of the top 10, and 10 out of the top 20, are in Africa.  These leaders, who either refuse to respect their country’s constitution or refuse to respect the will of their people, have each been in office for nearly 20 years or more.

As Dr. Ibrahim has pointed out, “The result is that political power lies in the hands of aging leaders who have little knowledge or interest in the ambitions and concerns of younger generations—and sadly even less interest in passing on the reins of leadership.”

At IRI, we see the frustrations of young Africans through the polling we’ve done throughout the continent.  In Tunisia, where young people were at the heart of the Arab Spring, a recent IRI poll showed that 53 percent of Tunisians think politicians do not pay attention to the needs and ideas of young people, in Zimbabwe it is 48 percent.  In another recent poll of Zanzabaris, 95 percent agreed that youth unemployment is a problem that needs to be addressed by politicians.

This growing restlessness will continue to impact the United States.  Of the top 25 countries that receive U.S. assistance, 13 are on the African continent.  The U.S. is now the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to sub-Saharan Africa.  In addition to the cost of assistance that falls on U.S. taxpayers, instability on the continent is creating a breeding ground for disaffected youth, who are being openly and actively recruited by ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabab and other terrorist networks.

Tackling the Leadership Gap

But while the challenges facing the continent are daunting, they can be turned into exciting opportunities.  Dr. Ibrahim is leading the way in helping young Africans build a brighter for themselves and the continent.  One of his best known efforts is the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.  With the prize, Dr. Ibrahim is honoring leaders who have been elected and govern democratically, and, importantly, serve their constitutionally mandated term.  As the Ibrahim Foundation website says, “The Ibrahim Prize has the potential to change perceptions of African leadership by showcasing exceptional role models from the continent.”

The Ibrahim Prize recognizes African leaders who have dedicated their time in office to developing their countries, improving the welfare and livelihoods of their people and who have paved the way for sustainable development.  The prize offers opportunities for leaders who have left national office to continue in other public roles across the continent and encourages the engagement of African citizens in the leadership debate.

Dr. Ibrahim has rightly said, Africa will only fully reap the benefits of its youth population if its decision-makers listen to young people, engage with them and provide them the education, skills and support they need to prosper.  Inspired by Dr. Ibrahim, at IRI, we are formally launching Generation Democracy, which aims to equip young men and women with the leadership skills necessary to become the next generation of democratic actors in their communities.  We have to foster a culture that values representative and inclusive governance practices.  Generation Democracy joins our Rising Stars initiative, which helps emerging democratic leaders gain knowledge and skills to prepare them to address their country’s challenges with sound and proven policies and govern in an open, transparent and democratic manner. 

The goals of both of these initiatives is best captured by what Dr. Ibrahim himself has said, “It’s time Africa started listening to our young people, instead of always telling them what to do.  It is their potential, after all, which will decide our continent’s future.  Let’s not waste it.”

Posted by

Mark Green