The Obama Administration is bringing to Washington next month several young African leaders from various walks of life in celebration of Africa’s independence. Rather than bringing in government officials or long-accomplished African figures, young men and women in their 20s and 30s will come representing Africa’s hope for the future.
This reminds me of the many times I have seen Africa’s future stifled or misled while on the continent. One prime example was the profusion of young politicians who emerged after Kenya declared multi-party democracy in the early 1990s. The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) was a movement that brought together numerous young lawyers and activists to press for an end to one-party rule. Unfortunately, once that was achieved, the ego of older leaders couldn’t bridge ethnic divides, and FORD split into FORD-Kenya and Ford-Asili. I met some promising young leaders such as the late Michael Wamalw; Mukhisa Kitui, who became Minister of Trade, and Raila Odinga, now Prime Minister of Kenya.
I watched these young men plan and execute campaign strategy and win seats in Kenya’s Parliament from the then-ruling Kenya African National Union. However, older leaders such as Oginga Odinga and Kenneth Matiba could not overcome their political enmities from the past and split the vote in 1992, allowing President Daniel arap Moi to win reelection. The ethnic animosities prevented FORD from reassembling even after these leaders left the political stage.
Yet another set of young leaders formed the Democratic Party of Kenya, which produced women leaders, such as Martha Karua, who became Minister of Justice, and Charity Ngilu, Kenya’s first female candidate for president. This was a party established by young men and women who believed they needed an elder to give them gravitas at the outset, and they asked former Finance Minister Mwai Kibaki to head their party. He ran for president several times before winning in 2002. In the process, it became clear that he had no intention of stepping aside for a younger candidate.
What would have happened if the younger politicians who successfully achieved multi-party democracy in Kenya had been given a chance to collaborate and field a candidate in the 1990s?
In Mali, I met the family that ran the Bank of Africa – Mali. The father had sent his son abroad to learn business, but he wouldn’t accept the son’s advice on current accounting and finance practices. Rather, he trusted the Frenchman whose office was near his. Decisions went through the French adviser, not the trained son nor any other young Africans with degrees at the bank.
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, young Islamic scholars in Guinea were sent to the Middle East for religious training, but came home radicalized. The imams they followed before they left no longer had their respect. The moderate brand of Islam practiced in West Africa was now too accepting of the Great Satan (the United States) or of Guineans who were seen as too Western in dress or social practices. Apparently, the imams and the parents of these young men hadn’t noticed that young Muslims in the Middle East were of a different strain of Islam than themselves.
In Zimbabwe, young men from rural areas – often under-educated and underemployed – were used as political thugs to beat opposition political party leaders and supporters and violently break up demonstrations. They were among the first wave that tore down houses in the hateful Operation Murambatsvina (Take Out the Trash). Supposedly, this operation was intended to be a sort of urban renewal program, by removing illegal structures. However, many of the houses had been built according to local regulations. And some even belonged to families of soldiers and policemen.
Perhaps the most horrific examples of the misuse of youth are the child soldiers in Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army. Young men become fighters, and young women become concubines. The boys become murderers before they become men, and even when they are rescued, they are feared and often unable to reintegrate into the communities from which they came. The girls become mothers, sometimes multiple times, and they are no longer desired wives once they are returned to their former homes. These young victims continue to be victimized by their training and treatment long after they are free. One wonders if they will ever be able to overcome their victimization and lead a life even slightly resembling the one taken from them.
In contrast to the tragedies and disappointments of those who came before them, the young men and women coming to America in August represent a brighter day for Africa. They have achieved admirable records in business, civil society and religious life. They are the ones who will lead their legislatures and executive branches, run multinational African companies, manage institutions of higher learning, advocate for the welfare of their people and guide the spiritual life of thousands, if not millions.
Mark well the young leaders you see next month. Among them could be the next Goodluck Jonathan.