Africa is the continent of the future. Are democracy and governance up to the challenge?

By Nathalie Delapalme, Executive Director, Mo Ibrahim Foundation

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Photo by Doug Linstedt on Unsplash

Africa is the world’s youngest continent with around 60% of the population currently under age 25. Between now and 2100, basically two generations only, Africa’s youth population is expected to increase by more than 180%, while Europe’s and Asia’s will shrink by more than 21% and by almost 28%, respectively. By the end of the century, Africa’s youth population will reach 1.3 billion people, double the expected total population of Europe, and will represent almost half of the world’s youth.

If Africa is the continent of the future, youth is the future of the African continent. Undoubtedly, the ability to offer them sound prospects is a key challenge that will shape the future of our shared world. Youth is Africa’s biggest resource. Its eagerness, dynamism, creativity, energy, and ability to make the best use of innovation can drive political, economic and cultural transformation on the continent, provided it is properly harnessed and challenged.

But we are at a tipping point. Too many young people on the continent feel both devoid of proper economic prospects and robbed of political ownership, often still held by leaders who are two or three generations older than their average population.

The results of the last Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG), published in October 2018, allow for reasonable optimism. On average, African governance has continued to follow a moderate upward trajectory over the last decade (2008-17), reaching in 2017 its highest performance over the last ten years. Almost 72% of Africa’s citizens, 3 out of 4, live in one of the 34 countries (out of 54) where governance performance has improved over the last ten years. This is good news. However, it leaves no room for complacency, as at least 1 in 4 of Africa’s citizens still lives in one of the 18 countries in which governance has deteriorated over that same period.

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Trends in the evolution of democracy across the continent call for a closer look. In 2008-17 39 countries, home to almost 80% of the continent’s population, improved their performance in the Participation and Human Rights dimension of the IIAG, encompassing political and civil rights and freedoms. The Participation component, assessing the level of democratic processes and freedoms, is one of the most improved of the 14 sub-categories that compose the IIAG. However, for more than one in two citizens (55% of the continent’s population) this progress has slowed or even deteriorated in recent years (2013-17).

Progress in participation has been driven mainly by improvement of the Democratic Elections indicator. Between 2006 and 2016, 96 direct and 13 indirect presidential elections resulted in 44 changes of power on the continent. In 2017-18, 12 presidential elections took place, leading to 7 changes of power. Meanwhile, election-related violence has spiked. While 14% of elections between 2006 and 2010 experienced violence on election day, the percentage rose to 45% in 2011-16. From 2006-15, the number of general protests and riots increased more than tenfold, with the number of registered fatalities strongly increasing.

Indeed, progress in democratic elections has not always translated into a better participatory environment, and many of IIAG’s indicators point to the closing of the civil and political space of citizens. If political participation has improved over the decade, in the last five years more than half of Africa’s citizens (56%) have suffered a decline in their freedom to participate in political processes or join a political organisation.

On average, over the 2008-17 decade, the Civil Society Participation indicator followed a downward trend. Almost 3 out of 4 citizens in Africa (73%) saw civil space in their country shrink and between 2013-17 the situation deteriorated further for more than half of Africa’s citizens (55%), reverting previous progress.

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The political engagement of Africa’s youth within existing democratic frameworks has consistently decreased.  According to various Afrobarometer surveys, young people in Africa vote less, are less interested in public affairs, attend less community meetings, discuss politics less frequently, and participate less often in demonstrations. From 2006-15, Africa’s citizens lost trust mostly in their presidents, parliamentary representatives, and local councillors. Per the 2016 Afrobarometer survey, their trust now goes first to their religious leaders (72%), followed by the army (64%) and traditional leaders (61%). In 2016, the 10 greatest age disparities between the Head of state and the median age of the country’s population ranged between 31 (Togo) and 65 years (Cameroon).

For the young people of Africa, political disenfranchisement goes along with a growing lack of economic opportunities. As defined by the IIAG, public governance does not stop at democracy, human rights and lack of corruption. Rather, defined by the ability of a government to deliver to its citizens the common basket of public goods and services that any 21st century citizen is entitled to, it also encompasses human development and sustainable and equitable socio-economic opportunities.

Indeed, the latest IIAG results show that the strong commodity-led economic growth of the 2008-17 decade has been mainly jobless and has not translated into better opportunities for most of Africa’s citizens. While Africa’s combined GDP has increased by almost 40% over the last decade, the trend of the Sustainable Economic Opportunity indicator has remained almost flat. More specifically, GDP growth has not translated into lower unemployment rates nor in a higher level of satisfaction with employment creation by the public.

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The latest IIAG results in Human Development also call for cautious optimism. This dimension is by far the best-trending over the past decade and the best-scoring in 2017. It is the only dimension in which the continental score has improved steadily every year from 2008 to 2017. Progress here has been mainly driven by strong amelioration in the Health component.

But meanwhile, and despite undeniable accomplishments, Africa’s progress in Education has proven unable to keep up with its youth population. Though the continental trend remains positive throughout the ten-year period, it has reversed into decline over the last five years, driven by a fall in the indicators measuring the quality of education and the adequacy of the supply to meet the needs of the economy and citizens’ expectations. This namely translates into the fact that young generations are better educated but less employed than their parents.

Mixed with democratic fatigue and political disenfranchisement, the lack of economic opportunities could become a highly toxic brew. If crushed, high hopes often lead to deep frustrations and anger, or to migration and extremism in search of better prospects. Indeed, as Africa’s youth is bound to represent almost half of the world’s total youth by 2100, Africa is undoubtedly the continent of the future. The ability to answer their expectations and to harness their energy and drive is key to shape that future, and represents a main, and urgent, governance challenge. Because, as the Africa’s youth representatives that have become the main stakeholders of the annual Ibrahim Governance Weekend like to underline, they are not the Next Generation, but the Now Generation.


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