Looking at African youth, the impression is that something is about to burst. Whether it will be a catastrophe or a new beginning, however, it’s not easy to tell.
Quite recently, Alexander Chikwanda, Zambia’s finance minister, voiced his concern by affirming that “youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb”. Figures, indeed, seem to be on his side.
In 2014, the African Development Bank’s African Economic Outlook reported that, out of 200 million people aged 15-24 on the continent, more than one in four (about 53 million) ‘are in precarious employment’, 40 million are unemployed, 18 million are in search of a job, while 22 million have lost hope of finding one. Moreover, according to the World Bank, youth accounts for 60% of all African unemployed, and the youth unemployment rate is 30% or over in key regions and countries such as North Africa, the Republic of Congo, Senegal, South Africa, among others.
Even more worryingly, most statistics seem to exclude, or to severely underestimate, the share of the youth which is only employed in the informal sector. This includes not only precarious jobs but also those which don’t pay good wages or develop skills, according to a definition given by the Brookings Institution. The US-based think-tank also estimates that ‘more than 70% of the youth in the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda are either self-employed or contributing to family work’.
More than once continental institutions have tried to address the problem: in 2009 African leaders met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, declaring 2009–18 the ‘African Youth Decade’: they pledged to mobilize resources, both from the public and the private sector, in order to address both unemployment and underemployment. The failure of this policy, however, is made evident by both the already mentioned figures and the number of similar projects that followed. It was just a few months ago, on 29 January 2016, that the African Development Bank’s President, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina, announced that the financial institution in collaboration with the African Union and the Economic Commission for Africa, was about to launch an initiative called ‘Jobs for Africa’s Youth’. The initiative will focus on agricultural development in the rural areas, the creation of small industries and businesses in order “to reach over 50 million youths over a 10-year period and stimulate the creation of 25 million jobs”, as Robert Mugabe, the then serving president of the African Union, said when the plan was announced. This, he added, “will help Africa to turn its demographic asset into an economic dividend”.
In fact, the grim situation of the youth for employment and opportunities contrasts sharply with at least two factors: the strong growth experienced in the last years by the continental economy and Africa’s demographic potential. No other region in the world has a higher percentage of young people among its population: 70% of the continent’s inhabitants are less than 30 years old. However, in the current conditions, most of these boys, girls and young adults are badly disadvantaged.
To give just an example, nearly one in two Africans of school age (or 9 million people) are currently receiving no formal education and in the next decade another 40 million will drop out without developing adequate skills.
The lack of opportunities in their regions of origin is one of the reasons why the migration of young people towards the urban areas – often seen as a sort of ‘promised land’ – is on the rise and is not going to stop anytime soon. According to the multinational professional services firm Ernst & Young, by the year 2030, 90 percent of the world’s young urban population will live in some of the most populous cities in Africa. In the short term, however, the main effect of this population shift is to make the unemployment issue more worrying – or to force qualified young men and women into menial jobs – and to potentially fuel tensions in other fields.
One of those is access to land, as shown for instance by the Namibian Affirmative Repositioning (AR) movement, initially associated particularly with the outspoken Job Amupanda, a former activist of the ruling Swapo Party Youth League (SYL). By occupying, in November 2014, a City Council-owned piece of land in an affluent suburb of Windhoek, AR founders highlighted the problem of high rental and property prices, and so the unsustainable cost of living in the city. The following threat of mass land invasions in the whole country was defused by an intervention of the country’s president, Hage Geingob, who promised to work with the activists in order to find a solution. Nevertheless, this was an example of the risks associated with underestimating youth dissatisfaction. Movements such as AR, however, also underline the other side of the youth issue in Africa, which is the potential for self-organisation and the capacity of the young people to develop alternative spaces for their realization, when they are excluded from the arenas of work and, more in general, power. (D.M.)