In 2050, a third of all young people will come from Africa. The question is whether there will be jobs for them all. Unemployment represents the greatest incentive for migration—especially to somewhere else in Africa—but Europe fears increasing numbers of young people will aspire to reach its shores and wants to help them find work. The watchword is: jobs for young Africans. However, their subordinate role is a social blind spot; a conflict between generations lies smouldering just beneath the surface. “What undermines young people there,” argues Marije Balt, “has now also become our concern.”

20 September 2019

I met Sekou five years ago. I was looking for young entrepreneurs for my research of youth unemployment—it wasn’t easy to find suitable, motivated participants. In Mali running a business is considered to be working poverty; it’s not something you choose to do voluntarily. But not by Sekou, a 22-year-old man with twinkling eyes, always in a good mood and full of energy. Someone with a lot to offer, the type of person who many NGOs are looking for since youth unemployment was put high on the political agenda. Sekou used to be a tour guide. Tourists came to his region from all over the world. His favourite place to take them was the ancient, monumental mosque in Djenn., built from clay. But with the kidnappings in the northern desert, his income dried up. He left for Bamako. But he found it difficult to break into the capital’s tourist industry, so he was looking to tap into a new market for his business: expats. It was a good idea—a UN mission was arriving with an influx of potential new customers, who would surely be interested in a trip on the Niger River at the weekend. We tried to help Sekou in all kinds of ways: by recommending him to potential customers, by lending him our car and giving him advice when he didn’t know what to do next. His business started to get off the ground. He wanted to run his small company properly, with the right permits and everything. But he didn’t get any loans from the government youth programme because in order to qualify you needed to have sponsors. His savings dried up, but he persevered. When we asked him how things were going, he said that he sometimes had work, but not enough to live on.

It turned out that established businesses, run by older men with strategic contacts, were slowly but surely squeezing him out of the market. At a certain moment they had him cornered. Sekou burst into our office in a complete panic. They had revoked his car license, while his tour group for that day stood there watching, with their rods and everything, ready to go fishing. They were important customers. Could we help him out?

The authorities were hassling him. This was his competitors’ way of letting him know there was no place for him in the market. The underlying message was: you’re too young, it’s not your time yet. However professional and driven Sekou was, he was a young man with a vulnerable business.

Once a business gets off the ground it’s met with disapproval and the young person is forced out of the market. Permits gone, customers gone, business down the drain. Older people consider these opportunities to be “theirs”—even if young people get a loan for their small business, the older competitors seize it.

Helping young entrepreneurs achieves little without taking into account these power dynamics and the youngsters’ subordinate position. How can coaching help if nobody is going to protect the young entrepreneurs? What good is a loan if they don’t have any customers and are robbed of it? And how can a couple of workshops help if the individuals barely learn anything relevant at school or university? The government’s neglect in terms of education has far-reaching consequences.

Pessimists fear a “perfect storm”: the combination of poorly educated young people, unemployment and poverty causes irregular migration and instability, exacerbated by the effects of climate change. This scenario is primarily heard outside of Africa.

On the continent you find (pockets of) ingenuity, such as the Yeelen Solar start-up, which produces folding solar panels that provide power in the most remote places.

For the time being the continent is overflowing with—often subsidised—external “innovations”, such as hyper-modern irrigation systems, which are simply abandoned as soon as they break down and can only be repaired by costly experts. When you ask why these companies do not join forces with young talented individuals you are told that they are too poorly educated. While younger generations simply love to find out how to solve problems.

Instead, education in Africa focuses on “colouring inside the lines” and discipline. Sekou also came up against this narrow-mindedness when he started taking a course alongside his work.

“I learned nothing at school that is useful in practice. Teachers’ pay is terrible; you don’t get qualifications by doing your best, but by paying for it.” It is as though the system, so old-fashioned and corrupt, is focused on holding young people back.

Nowhere in the world is the generation gap so wide as in Sub-Saharan Africa, something that also manifests itself in its politics. According to the United Nations, the average age of African administrators and ministers is 65, while the average age of the population continues to decrease, and is currently already below twenty. Young people are angry because even those with qualifications have to wait longer and longer to get a job.

The Afrobarometer, which measures public attitudes in Africa,has found that forty percent of young people believe their current situation is bad. The situation between generations conjures up images of a dormant volcano; below the surface discontent smoulders among a growing number of young people, while the old elite dances op top. In today’s world young people are condemned to the waiting list. They protest wholeheartedly against the self-serving culture of the old elite. African governments increasingly respond to this protest by cutting off the Internet, out of fear of a critical mass.

But African leaders need not fear, they receive help from an unexpected corner: the European Union. The EU is pursuing an ambivalent policy, which one of my Ghanaian students categorises as follows:

“Those old men get their hands on the money meant for young people, who simply run away from them”.

She adds: “As long as this scenario persists young people will continue to come to Europe.” Thus, the well-intentioned aid for young people risks being cancelled out by aid that actually undermines them.

Think about strengthening borders: they should be well guarded, but not at the expense of human rights. The risk of this happening increases if you have a corrupt security apparatus. A border control post is attached to a revenue model: if you want to pass through, you must pay.

Once I saw the Kenyan border police in Wajir in brand new jeeps, undoubtedly paid for by donors. What were they doing there, a hundred or so kilometres from the border with Somalia? Local residents explained that this was a kind of taxi service, available to the highest bidders—which at the time were pirates and terrorists. In the Sahel it is currently illegal traffickers.

In 2017, seven billion dollars got diverted into human trafficking, according to the IIAG report Africa’s Youth: Jobs or Migration. This trade is thriving due to the walls that were erected. Ever more money, originating from families who saved up for their chosen son or daughter to make the journey, ends up in the hands of traffickers.

And any money-making activity will survive. The slave market in Libya was a harbinger of what is to come. I wish the EU missions good luck with their mandate “to combat human trafficking”.

Back to the young people on the waiting list. What happened to our entrepreneur Sekou, of whom we had grown rather fond, and had been bullied by the authorities? He suddenly turned up in France. We had really done our best for his small business! But that’s what you get with dynamic youngsters; they want to prove themselves. And that can lead to saving up for the costly crossing. Fortunately it was different for Sekou. He obtained a visa to study, didn’t have to do business with human traffickers and was able to just hop on a plane. In a caf. in Paris he told me that he wanted to study law, to fight corruption when he returned to Mali: “I want to prevent young people from going through the same ordeal as I went through and to be able to defend themselves.”

Could he—brave and dynamic—be the type of leader who provides opportunities for young people in Africa? Imagine if the five hundred million young people who will soon have access to mobile Internet could use it to earn a living as iWorkers! The platforms on which they could offer their products or services are springing up like mushrooms, such as the Kenyan Lynk.

Imagine there is a type of leader that emerges, who leaves the lucrative export of raw materials for what it is and focuses on the region’s potential. But only if young entrepreneurs are able to trade and move freely would it create real jobs. In this regard Europe could do a lot for Africa, thanks to experience with the internal market. This type of leader predominantly emerges in cities and that makes me feel optimistic. It is too soon to speak of an African spring, but something is brewing.

The call for better leadership and good governance is getting louder and louder. Just look at Sudanese Alaa Salah, who symbolised the protest against President Omar al-Bashir. Her courage inspired young people on the entire continent. She knows better than anyone what needs to happen to combat the abuse of power and corruption, but she does not yet have a seat at the table at the centre of power.

The political and social scope she has acquired is even waning here and there. It seems that it will take a little while longer before the leadership is replaced by a younger generation. From the outside you can hardly exert any influence—or can you? What undermines young people there has now also become our business.

European politicians can no longer intervene as they please and buy everything off with agreements on security and border control. This only serves to increase the power of old African leaders and they will treat young people even more harshly.

What does the European Union actually want from young Africans? For them to be enterprising and dynamic, or to hold them back?

Our well-intended aid for young entrepreneurs serves little purpose in this scenario: the incentive to leave will grow, while the number of young Africans is doubling.

Be bold in your approach and look for young talented people. Enable more young people like Sekou to become experts in, for example, corporate law, so they can help young entrepreneurs stand up for themselves against the almighty government.

Or work with Sapato Oumar Almahmoud, who dared to film what human traffickers do to young people in the desert. His film Regret is far more credible to young people than all the slick campaigns to discourage potential migrants from setting off for Europe.

Migration in Africa and to Europe continues. It would be better if it were jointly steered in the right direction. The overall position of young people will have to improve quickly: better education, good governance and access to the Internet, as well as freedom and the freedom of movement, represent the keys to improving future prospects for young Africans. It is time that they were placed at the top of the agenda instead of on the waiting list.

Current European policy is full of paradoxes. Don’t allow one hand to ignore what the other one is doing: strengthening power structures that undermine young people. Let that be the next point on the agenda in Brussels.

Marije Balt is director of the consultancy SpringFactor, a lecturer in International Relations and member of the Advisory Board of the Nuffic Orange Knowledge Programme.

Illustration: Selma Sofie van Gorkum

This essay was published earlier in the Special Jobs Report ‘The World of Work’ by ViceVersa