This opinion piece was written by James Ladi Williams, a consultant at Emerging Public Leaders. For more like this, see our spotlight on public service leadership in Africa.
Young people in Africa are demanding seats at the political table.
Kenya’s 2017 elections brought forth the country’s youngest lawmaker at the age of 23. Africa’s youngest head of government, Ethiopia’s 41-year-old Abiy Ahmed, took office this April. In my country, Nigeria, young people successfully campaigned for the enactment of the “Not Too Young To Run” Bill that reduced the age requirement to run for electoral seats in executive and legislative branches of government.
• Want to write for us? Take a look at Apolitical’s guide for contributors
These important developments reflect the frustration of young people with their exclusion from political processes and a rejection of an older political elite that has largely failed to provide the leadership needed to address the issues that affect them, especially illiteracy, poverty and unemployment.
The perception of bloated, inefficient bureaucracies turns young people away from government
Increasing the share of qualified, highly-skilled youth in electoral offices is an important step to enhance the quality of representation and governance across the continent. However, to fully unleash the transformative potential of young people, they also need adequate representation in non-elected positions across government institutions.
Yet, critical non-elected positions are generally inaccessible to youth who typically lack the social capital and connections required to secure well-paying, meaningful government jobs. Surely, the perception that African civil service organisations are bloated, inefficient bureaucracies also plays a role in turning young people away from public service.
Public service can be the answer
Public service, however, must be part of the answer to Africa’s toughest challenges. In my formative years, I struggled to reconcile the paradoxical coexistence of poverty and wealth in my country, which now has the largest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world.
My government teacher in secondary school helped me make sense of Nigeria’s myriad problems by exposing me to the expected roles of government and public officials in society. When I evaluated those expectations in light of my lived experiences in Lagos, I quickly recognised a disconnect that sparked my strong interest in a public service career.
Outside of Nigeria, I have seen firsthand how young people can make a difference in the public interest through public service. I have served in the office of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where I worked alongside young professionals to conduct research to advance legislation on a range of policy issues.
When it comes to making our societies better, politics matters. But it’s not all that matters
I have also served in local government as a New York City Urban Fellow, where I worked on poverty alleviation and youth employment programs. Although I and many of my colleagues were just fresh graduates, we brought our analytical skills and understanding of local issues to inform the team’s programmatic strategy.
While serving in executive and legislative branches of government, I saw that young people can influence public policy through their contributions to decision-making. These experiences have also left me with an insight that has broadened my perspective on what’s possible with a public service career.
When it comes to making our societies better, politics matters. But it’s not all that matters.
It would be a mistake for young Africans with public service career interests to limit their leadership aspirations to such a small number of electoral offices. Even if we get political leadership right, the effectiveness of government would still depend on civil servants with the motivation and skills to implement policy and deliver services that emanate from political processes.
Why we need more young people at the table
Certainly, Africa has no shortage of motivated youth with the energy and talent to create change. For at least three reasons, it is important that they are represented at all levels of governance, even in non-elected civil service positions.
- Africa is the youngest continent. The average age in sub-Saharan Africa is 18, and roughly 60% of the population is under 25. Africa’s youth are disproportionately affected by contemporary challenges like unemployment, and we cannot afford to exclude them from decision-making processes on issues that affect them — especially when they can expect to bear the consequences of those decisions for the rest of their lives, unlike older segments of the population.
- Youth perspectives are critical inputs for effective and relevant policy solutions. Young people have a unique understanding of their problems and their proximity to the shortcomings of existing policy responses gives them insights into potential improvements. In various public service roles, they can contribute such insights to the development and implementation of effective policies and programs to better address their needs.
- A civil service revitalised with youthful vigour would revolutionise youth engagement in governance and spur public sector innovation. Young civil servants have the contextual knowledge and credibility to use social media, arts, and culture to systematically make government institutions more accessible to their peers. Amidst the unfolding fourth industrial revolution, these young people have higher tech literacy than adults and can also bring disruptive technologies to bear on urgent challenges like revenue mobilisation, access to healthcare, and teacher absenteeism.
Some analysts express cautious optimism about Africa’s new cohort of young public sector leaders. Because bad governance has been mainstreamed across the continent for decades, there is a risk that they might end up behaving just like the old guard of incumbents they seek to replace.
These concerns are valid; therefore, we should be careful not to consider young age as a proxy for excellence or civic virtue. Societies must, instead, subject young leaders to high standards of accountability that would create strong incentives for them to do the right thing in office.
Acknowledging this risk, however, does not take away from the fact that we need to create more opportunities for young people to play active roles in governance.
Young Africans need to become the leaders we wish for in our countries
My service in the US legislature and NYC government was made possible by cohort-based programs designed to expose young people to public service. Such programs are worth emulating in African contexts, where the inclusion of youth in public administration is neither systematic nor institutionalised.
I currently support the creation of identical opportunities for young people in Africa through my work with Emerging Public Leaders — a public service leadership organisation that recruits, places, and supports talented youth in entry-level positions in government agencies and ministries across Africa.
Young Africans, like myself, who believe they have a role to play in solving complex policy problems face a clear task: we need to become the leaders we wish for in our countries. On this point, we should be ready to lead, not only as elected officials, but also as administrators and policy specialists — civil servants — making a difference in non-elected positions.
Africa is full of potential. As the last frontier of the global economy, it holds the key to end poverty and creating inclusive prosperity. But we will not realise this potential without the energy, passion, and talent of young people in government. A lot is at stake and we don’t have much time to lose. — James Ladi Williams
(Picture credit: Flickr/Mark Fischer)