It was a clash of the generations at this year’s African Union summit.
Some of Africa’s brightest and best young talent in business and activism fired off warning shots to their elderly leadership, many of whom then sought to defend their track record back home.
From the conference centre balcony in the capital of Equatorial Guinea, young delegates took notes on laptops, posting updates on Facebook and Twitter.
“WOW a lot of Heads of States wanting to speak on issues of the youth… are they really saying anything though?!” read one post by @anchihoye on Twitter. Amid grappling with issues like Libya’s conflict, this year’s AU gathering is meant to tackle the issue of the continent’s youth.
The new generation is a source of excitement for its potential and economic prospects but also of trepidation due to bulging numbers and simmering frustrations, Reuters reports.
A host of figures were rolled out to remind everyone of the urgency of the matter.
According to the World Bank, around two out of three Africans are under 30 and youth unemployment is high with some 10 million Africans entering the job market every year.
But it was the backdrop of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as recent unrest in usually quiet Senegal, Burkina Faso and Uganda, which probably best focussed the minds of the assembled heads of state.
“The youth of Tunisia have showed that when we mobilise we can achieve our objective,” said Mehdi ben Youssef, a Tunisian youth leader. “In my modest experience, the youth do not wait for governments to act.”
CASE FOR INVESTING
The U.N.’s Economic Commission for Africa said the idea that the continent could take advantage of its young population hinged on its youth being able to join the workforce with fewer dependents to look after.
“However, population projections show that Africa will not reap the demographic dividend soon, not unless there is significant investment in youth education and employment and fertility rates are drastically reduced,” the ECA said.
Youth unemployment was around 20 percent in 2009 but underemployment, with people working in informal jobs in poor conditions, was a greater challenge, it said.
“A change of attitude towards African youth is also imperative, where they are no longer seen as problems or challenges but as opportunities worth investment.”
JUST A TALKING SHOP?
Reminding them of recent trouble up north, Jean Ping, chairman of the AU commission, sought to prod the presidents into action.
Unrest in Ivory Coast and Nigeria, where youth have easily been recruited as often violent political militants, was highlighted as a warning.
It will take time to gauge whether the summit will be more than a talking shop. But some, at least, remained sceptical.
Towards the end of hours of talks, @Hondanny weighed in on Twitter. “Golden opportunity? not quite”.
In a more traditional reaction, listening to one rambling presidential speech, an international observer said: “This debate showed how far apart they are.”