Foreign Policy Digital

No Continent for Old Men

Africa has the world’s youngest population and its oldest leaders. If the next generation wants change, young Africans must abandon dreams of private-sector success and enter the political arena.

The idea that Africa’s youth bulge is the key to sustained economic growth—a so-called demographic dividend—is a popular talking point for aging African leaders who coopt such language in an effort to signal faith and optimism in the next generation. This was particularly evident in 2017, when African heads of state adopted “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in the Youth” as the year’s official theme for the African Union.

While gestures toward youth empowerment are welcome, one awkward fact stands out:  Africa—the youngest continent in the world—plays host to some of the oldest and longest-serving political leaders. 

And while the historic election of young people such as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, elected chancellor in 2017 at the age of 31, or El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, 37 when he became president, make headlines elsewhere, it is troubling that this doesn’t occur on a continent where the median age is 19. It is worth noting that Africa does play host to young leaders, including 43-year-old Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, though these are few and far between.

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