At 68, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is nearly five decades older than his country’s newly sworn-in MP Proscovia Alengot Oromait, who wasn’t even born when her head of state was first elected to office 26 years ago. When a 19-year old girl gets voted into Uganda’s parliament by a majority of voters barely older than she is, is it too early to start speculating on the demise of the rest of Africa’s leaders, who tend to be two generations older than their voters?
Recently, Todd Moss and Stephanie Majerowicz at the Center for Global Development published “The Generation Chasm,” which studied the difference between the average ages of the citizens of countries and the ages of their leaders – and discovered that Africa had by far the largest gap, an amazing 43.3 years (Europe and North America, by contrast, have only 16.2 years between the ages of leaders and voters). This led them to speculate whether the staggering generation gap was a factor in the spread of the Arab Spring unrest – and whether it might provoke further sudden regime changes in Africa.
At the heart of the Arab Spring was a disgruntled youth class seeking democratic representation and economic participation. Remember Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation launched the uprisings? He didn’t set himself ablaze because he had a smart phone. His self-immolation was his last desperate attempt to bring attention to his economic exclusion. His peers in the region sympathized and, almost overnight, Tunisia and the political landscape of most of Northern Africa changed. It was a signal that Africa’s ruling class was under siege.
On one end Mr. Bouazizi, aged 26, represented Africa’s emerging youth class, an impatient demographic eager to upend the status quo (he was only five years younger than the median Tunisian). On the other, deposed dictator Ben Ali, age 76, stood as a breed of elder statesmen – disconnected from the needs of populations, and facing extinction.
If ever there was a demographic equivalent to the Marianas Trench, it is the chasm between Africa’s median age and that of its rulers. According to the Population Reference Bureau, 41 per cent of Africa’s billion citizens are under the age of 15. There are almost as many youth on the continent as the combined population of Canada, United States and Mexico. In all, a staggering 70 per cent of the population is under 30.
The leaders, however, almost all fall within oldest 3 per cent of Africa’s population, those over the age of 65. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe (88) and Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki (80) are among the many leaders who are defying the continent’s average life expectancy of 58.
Mr. Moss and Ms. Majerowicz found that 20 of the 30 countries with the widest population gap were African, and no African state made it to the list of top 30 countries with the smallest population gap. That Africa’s ruling class is only represented in the oldest 3 per cent of the continent’s population both worries and excites me.
It is clear that Africa’s gerontocracy isn’t going to last much longer. The worry, echoed by others, is that there’s a shallow pool of experienced candidates to fill the transition gap.
The excitement is in the massive opportunity this presents to Africa’s youth. Where it previously took a lifetime of political gamesmanship to get and maintain a seat in government, one can now just run for office. If not by election, then the omni-present potential of more youth revolts shouldn’t be ruled out. It is no longer a matter of if, but when.
Africa is in the midst of a renaissance. The telecommunications sector is on pace to have as many mobile phones on the continent as there are people by 2016. A highly educated and vocal diaspora is contributing its intelligence to the online human archive via social media and fuelling the continent’s economy to the tune of $50-billion in annual remittances. A smattering of African countries head the list of top 10 fastest growing economies in the world. And let’s not overlook the fact that 300 million Africans are knocking on the door to middle-class status.
Africa’s rebirth is supplanting the traditionally slow path of development with a fight for relevance in the fast-shrinking global village. Leapfrogging obsolescence is the order of the day. As such, Africa’s political landscape is ripe for a sudden tectonic shift.
The ascension of Ms. Oromait to Uganda’s parliament has been met with disdain from her seasoned counterparts. The fact that a 19-year old was voted into office has shocked the cabal of grey-haired MPs wondering what has become of the political landscape.
The teeth-sucking derision from sitting MPs at the youngster in their midst is outward acknowledgment that the dam has broken. After all, 45 per cent of Uganda’s 32 million citizens are under 25. It was only a matter of time before they started poking at the political seams.
TMS Ruge is the co-founder of Project Diaspora, an organization dedicated to mobilizing, engaging, and motivating Africa’s diaspora to engage the continent. He is also the host of the Digital Continent Podcast, an interview show telling the stories of key innovators and entrepreneurs whose work is shaping the digital economies of Africa.Report Typo/Error
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