Let’s start with the obvious: The African Union was sketched during the first congress of independent African states, and drawn out as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), on May 25, 1963.
Back then, the combined population of all countries in Africa was slightly over 300 million; 56 years later, the continent has added a billion more people, majority of whom are youth.
In the eastern Africa region, although Ethiopia is the most populous of the countries, the highest known rate for a national population arising from the conjunction of a very high birth rate and a quite low death rate was experienced in Kenya during the 1980s. Then, the natural increase of the population was approximated 4.1 per cent per annum.
The continent will, by 2050, have the largest number of working-age persons. Projections indicate that the population growth of African countries will increase significantly; in comparison, the working age population of some of the developed countries in Asia and Europe will decrease.
For a long time, the term population growth, when used in the same sentence with the African continent, conjured Picasso-like images, characterised with unemployment, insecurity, uncontrolled birth rates and increased numbers of rural-urban migrations, among other negatively loaded terms.
In converse, research shows, population increase can positively provide a point to anchor the quest for a demographic dividend and reap benefits.
Tying the above reality with the awakening that the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) came into force on May 30, then gives hope to the youth of tomorrow and brings into core two asks for the youth of this day. One, can the combined effect of a youthful workforce help to spur a demographic dividend for Africa? Two, can our leaders meaningfully commit to contribute to achieving the AU’s Agenda 2063 goals?
For the latter, the fact that all but three countries have deposited instruments of ratification for the AfCFTA is a sure sign. But to reap maximum gains, a formula to translate youth populations into actual development achievements is key.
Take the example of Ethiopia and Kenya. The leaders of the two neighbouring countries have contributed to creating conditions whereby the youth can visualise and chase dreams across either of the other’s national border visa-free!
The youth need to be empowered, be better educated and have improved access to health services. Ethiopia and Kenya have made progress in realising free education and healthcare. However, investments have tended to concentrate on one phase, to the detriment of the other. For instance, focus has been on the early phase of education and the late phase of healthcare.
The youth are Africa’s perfect foil. So far, they have demonstrated that they can add some brush strokes in the directions the continent is moving. Engaging them in development is not only critical but a priority.
While debate on the link between political integration and economic development has raged for years, attention needs to swing to the development implications of population structure.
Mr Alem is the Ethiopian Ambassador to Kenya.