Africa’s Median Age Is about 19. The Median Age of Its Leaders Is about 63.
Africa has the world’s youngest population. According to the CIA World Factbook, the top 10 countries with the lowest median age are in Africa. Niger’s median age is 14.8, and in Uganda, the second youngest, it’s 15.7. Excluding island nations like the Seychelles and North African nations like Tunisia and Algeria, no African country save South Africa falls outside the world’s 150 youngest populations.
However, the average age of African leaders stands in stark contrast to that of the citizens they represent. The three main candidates in Nigeria’s recent presidential elections were 76, 70, and 61 years old. The declared winner is more than 50 years older than his average constituent. In Uganda, 78-year old President Yoweri Museveni—who has held that office since 1986—is nearly 63 years older than his average constituent. This huge “age gap” is due to a combination of having older first-time candidates and incumbents who simply choose to stay in office as long as their health will permit—in some cases, despite their country’s term limits.
As Mo Ibrahim, Sudanese-born billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist puts it, “[P]olitical 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.”
Why does any of this matter? Because Africa’s age gap inevitably creates political and policy-based challenges that could affect the stability of some of its countries. The most notable of these challenges is the growing pressure for leaders to find ways to meet the economic needs and aspirations of their youth in the years ahead.
Several years ago the World Economic Forum, African Development Bank, and World Bank issued a report estimating that Africa’s population is growing significantly faster than job opportunities. The report projects that the number of working-age Africans will grow by 70 percent—or 450 million people—by 2035. On the other hand, absent significant economic reforms—reforms that could create short term economic and political pain—the number of jobs will likely only grow by 100 million.
But the continent’s young population also represents an opportunity for a “demographic dividend.” The report notes that, “Young Africans represent new ideas and aspirations that could, properly addressed, unleash new economic opportunity. As the continent’s population continues to grow at an exponential rate, it is imperative that African leaders listen to the needs of the younger generation and energize them to participate in the political process.”
To paraphrase Ibrahim, current African leaders need to empower young people to become leaders themselves. This is also an opportunity for the US—and in particular, American investors—to help.
The US government, with programs like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Power Africa, Prosper Africa, and others, has an important role to play, but it’s trade and investment that will power the future which African leaders desire…and that African youth will demand.
This blog was compiled with the help of Carlotta Murrin.