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Africa’s biggest challenge – and its greatest opportunity – is its young people. The most important question is: to what weapon will Africa’s young people turn – the polling booth or the gun?
The challenges are enormous. Africa is already home to more than a billion people, many of whom live in poverty and have no prospect of a self-determined life. Its population is likely to double to more than two billion by 2050; some 20 per cent of the world’s population will then be African, and only about five per cent will be European. Are we clear about what this means for our ecosystems, for the world economy and for international politics? Climate change – which has been caused not by Africans but primarily by the rich nations – and the desertification that it brings are putting the livelihoods of millions of people at risk. The widespread extolling of Africa as the ‘growth continent’ in recent years is being increasingly replaced by talk of the vulnerability of African economies: falling oil prices have ripped large holes in the budgets of countries such as Nigeria and Angola, and many countries that have long relied on commodity exports and hence ignored the need for diversification are now experiencing a rude awakening as demand falls and commodity prices hit rock bottom. In the political sphere, some countries are experiencing a worrying increase in autocracy. Fortunately, however, civil society is becoming ever more alert and countries such as Nigeria and Tanzania have recently demonstrated that African governments that act with professionalism and integrity are tackling serious reforms in Africa.
Africa’s biggest challenge – and its greatest opportunity – is its young people.
Africa’s biggest challenge – and its greatest opportunity – is its young people. Two out of three Africans are under the age of 35. And they want what young people everywhere want: education, jobs, a chance to make their voice heard, a life worth living. The International Monetary Fund estimates that 18 million jobs will need to be created in Africa every year until 2035 simply to absorb the growing cohort of young people. Such a task is unprecedented in the history of humanity.
And it leads me to ask what is perhaps the most important question for Africa’s future: to what weapon will Africa’s young people turn – the polling booth or the gun? The answer to this question is also crucial to the future wellbeing of Europe, because if young Africans in their hundreds of millions perceive no prospect of a dignified life, we are likely to see massive instability on our neighbouring continent, coupled with migration on a scale that will make the movements of recent months seem but a trickle. The increasing incidence of terrorist attacks demonstrates clearly that destabilising African regions and seducing Africa’s young people are part of the strategy of the butchers of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
Responsibility for the future of Africa lies principally with the Africans themselves. Long-term prosperity for Africa will be unachievable unless the drive to tackle corruption and poverty and promote the rule of law becomes firmly anchored in the political culture. And yet we cannot escape the question: What suggestions do Germany and Europe have to put to Africa’s young people? Where Africa is concerned, it seems to me that there is a strange disparity between the vastness of the challenge and the timidity of our responses. The conclusion surely cannot be that we should simply step up our development assistance. Of course I have nothing against more assistance, but we must ask ourselves whether that is enough. Can we really expect a different result if we just offer more of the same?
We need a large-scale strategic response; we need new thinking in Africa and in Germany.
This means, firstly, that the German economy with its strong industrial capability is the natural partner to work with Africa to drive the necessary diversification and transformation of African economies. Our small and medium-sized enterprises with their philosophy of local roots and social responsibility are particularly well placed to play a leading role in this. I am pleased that the German economy is currently rediscovering the growth potential of the African continent. An example of this is a major new training project for electricians, mechanics and mechatronics engineers that the VDMA – the Association of German Machinery and Plant Manufacturers – and the Nigerian conglomerate Dangote have launched with BMZ in Nigeria. If we are to have a strong strategic economic partnership with Africa, I would also like to see the German Government promote the more flexible use of financing and guarantee instruments.
Secondly, Africa has sound plans for tackling poverty and encouraging the sort of growth that creates jobs. These strategies include regional integration and the formation of a pan-African free trade zone. However, these drivers of growth will be unable to realise their full potential unless it becomes easier for the African economies to slot into international value chains – something that is currently prevented in key sectors by the trade and agriculture policies of the industrialised countries. Europe should act as an advocate and take steps to change this. This means that the European Partnership Agreements – and also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – should be reviewed to determine whether they hinder rather than promote the establishment of an African manufacturing industry and a dynamic service sector.
Thirdly, we should give more young people from Africa the opportunity to come to Germany or Europe for a time to learn, to study and to do research. Let us vastly expand our exchange programmes and increase the bursaries available! Whenever I ask young people in Africa what they would like Germany and Europe to do, they say: ‘Let us come to you. We don’t want to be corralled in our own country: we want to learn from you for a year or two and then come back and help develop our own country.’ Let us respond to this wish not with small-mindedness and fear but with openness, generosity and the joy felt by a teacher when he encounters a curious pupil who is eager to learn.
Fourthly, we must discard our arrogance towards Africa and learn more about its history, its reality, its culture. Let us learn to differentiate. And let us learn more from Africa. This continent deserves the full attention of our brightest minds; it deserves meetings of MPs and visits and dialogue on a far larger scale than at present. And it deserves a mutual learning process, a process of learning about each other. Incidentally, I am convinced that in the course of this we will also learn to understand ourselves better – to understand what it means to be European or German in this world of mutual dependencies.
So let us now turn our gaze towards Africa. We must no longer sidestep this major issue of the 21st century! We must have the courage to come up with big answers, because the challenges are not going to get any smaller.
And let us stop producing sham solutions, stop erecting new walls in our heads and along our borders. Any genuine long-term solution to the world’s present disarray must involve a policy of openness to the world and an awareness of how closely intertwined are the fortunes of its peoples. This also requires a different, more serious, more international economic policy, trade policy, environmental policy, agricultural policy, transport policy – in short, a policy that adds up to a new international peace and development policy. A Euro-African learning partnership could achieve great things.
This article is based on Horst Köhler’s speech at the Africa Congress of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the German Bundestag on 16 March 2016. The full text of the original speech (in German) can be found here.