News & Events

Global cities offer lessons to Lagos on dynamic optimisation of transport

A tuk tuk driver in Lagos Photo: Olasunkanmi Ariyo


Commuting between mainland Lagos and the central business districts on the island remains a lot more onerous than it should. Long delays on the Third Mainland Bridge during peak periods (what Lagosians refer to as the “rush hours”) is both time and energy consuming. This constitutes a major drain on productivity while hindering the city’s strategic economic role. Slow mobility ranks alongside power shortages as a key structural constraint to Lagos’s competitiveness. Implementing creative ideas to optimise existing transport infrastructure will help. The Third Mainland Bridge especially requires urgent planning interventions to unblock what is arguably the most important transportation artery in Nigeria’s commercial capital.

This will bring relief to motorists even as city planners work on devising more long-term solutions. As the urban conglomeration that accounts for a full quarter of Nigeria’s economic output – and Africa’s first genuine contender for the status of a megacity – Lagos must think boldly and tweak more at the edges. Otherwise its longer-term sustainability and bid to consolidate itself as Nigeria’s economic engine will hang precipitously in the balance. A dysfunctional transport system with worsening mobility will have knock-on effects, likely hobbling Nigeria’s potential to drive integration and prosperity.

Tasking commute

A system of scheduled lane switches on the Third Mainland Bridge will help to expand capacity for travellers to Lagos’s islands in the mornings and commuters bound for the mainland in the afternoon. The following are proposals around lane optimisation on the bridge, which could significantly expand capacity for accommodating Lagos’s growing vehicular traffic. This author draws on his own anecdotal experience of early morning commutes on the bridge from the island side in Ikoyi to Ikeja on the mainland, a route he plies about four to six times each month. From about 4am to 8am on work days, island-bound commuters using the bridge contend with steady traffic build-up, which slows to a crawl at around 7am. During the afternoon peak hours, usually from 4pm to 8pm, the direction of the pile up is reversed. Workers leaving the island for their homes on the mainland contend with hours-long traffic delays.

On most working days, an observer entering the bridge at about 7am from the Ikoyi/Osborne ramp towards the mainland will notice the build-up of traffic on the four lanes coming towards the island. This usually tails back several kilometres, sometimes snaking unbroken all the way to the Oworonshoki entry to the bridge on the mainland end. A commuter travelling in the opposite direction towards Oworonshoki at this time might struggle to count up to 100 vehicles plying the entire four lanes. It should normally take about 10-15 minutes to travel the 11.8 km length of the bridge from Osborne to Oworonshoki, but commuters travelling this distance at peak periods sometimes need as much as one to two hours. This raises important questions about how a dynamic lane-switch and expanding system could help improve mobility via co-opting excess lane capacity on the opposite side of congested traffic.

Reshuffle to relieve

The whole Third Mainland Bridge needs creative rethinking. Since the bridge consists of four commuter lanes in each direction, there is a strong case for optimising peak flow through co-opting two proximate lanes from the opposite side to supplement the congested direction. This solution will see a dynamic optimisation of the 4+4 lanes, switching it to a 6+2 system when needed. It essentially requires reversing the normal direction of flow on two lanes on the other side (that is, the two closest to the congested side of the bridge). Some traffic can thus be diverted to the other side to supplement capacity. The two makeshift lanes will add to capacity by forming six lanes, thus freeing up the vehicular flow. The two lanes left on the lighter traffic side will still be sufficient for travellers heading in that direction.

Piloting scheduled lane shifts during peak period promises an exciting template that could be applied elsewhere in the city. The process should operate only on work days (Monday to Friday) with a coordinated arrangement in place to smoothly reverse the flow: six lanes will convey traffic towards the island from 7am-10am and six lanes will be open to vehicular flow towards the mainland from 4pm to 8pm.

Emulate trendsetters

The importance of good proactive management of dynamically switching lane systems along major commuter arteries cannot be over-emphasised. The devil is in the detail. Many world cities already implement similar approaches based on capacity expansion and constriction in each direction as needed. That has kept commuter cities from Cape Town through to Los Angeles and Tokyo ticking through peak traffic hours. Since the opening of the Third Mainland Bridge in the 1980s, the rapid expansion in the number of vehicles has not seen a corresponding expansion of road infrastructure. Under-capacity of the bridge relative to vehicular traffic growth is therefore one consequence.

Other measures, such as prohibiting some vehicles from plying congested routes on specific days or during specific hours, are more draconian than the capacity-switch system proposed here. Lane switching can alleviate the perennial hardship faced by motorists pending the actualisation of Lagos’s plan to build a 38 km Fourth Mainland Bridge. However, at the core of getting this right – like every public-administration issue in Nigeria – will be good governance of the system. This will require advance publicity, effective commuter education, adequate signage along the entire route, redesign of exit lanes and all other such measures required to create a well-functioning, dynamic and easily understood traffic optimisation system on the bridge.

Piloting this system could allow for another big transformation in Lagos’s traffic management: the creation of a small but uniformed corps to monitor motorists’ adherence to the temporary lane-partition system. This will help deter some of the notorious habits that slow down traffic on the bridge, especially the hundreds of slow-moving vehicles that stay in the fast lanes and obstruct faster moving vehicles. Poor education of motorists over the years, and a general lack of awareness of the drawbacks, has led to “lane-hugging” contributing probably as much as 30% of the traffic build-up, with increasing vehicular entry onto the bridge inevitably slowing down finally to a crawl. The bridge corps will also need to oversee a robustly implemented network of makeshift lanes marked by cones placed at one metre intervals. This will safely partition the two directions of travel. The cones will come into place an hour before the start of the lane expansion at peak-periods in either direction.

A bridge safety corps

While the bridge is a federal road, piloting a state traffic monitoring corps there could help lay the foundation for a dedicated bridge and highway corps. It could gradually grow into a specially trained unit within the Lagos State Transport Management Agency (LASTMA). Diligent planning and a smooth roll-out will be important to maximise benefits and mitigate potential risks in the system. A careful spatial redesign at specific points is needed to facilitate entry and exit onto the convertible two lanes on the proximate side of peak traffic. This redesign requires some investment but the likely gains for commuters will justify the expenditure.

Even as the fine points of the design and implementation are worked out, extensive precautionary measures will need to be in place to guarantee safety and achieve the intended goal. First, clear signage should be erected well in advance. The bridge corps officers must also be stationed at the entry and exit to the makeshift lanes. They will display information on placards reminding motorists of possible exits if using the two extra lanes.

Second, core components of the system should be carefully piloted before the actual roll-out. One possibility is to dedicate the two extra lanes during the mornings to only those motorists exiting at the Osborne and other ramps further into the island. Another option is to allocate one of the makeshift lanes for the exclusive use of commercial passenger vehicles, which is probably viable given the general shift to longer routing with fewer stops by commercial passenger vehicles.

Third, Lagos is notorious for the large number of motorists (particularly the commercial operators) who ignore road signs, routinely endangering the safety of other road users. Oversight systems and physical barriers will therefore be needed to compel all drivers, for example those needing to exit the bridge earlier at points such as the Oyingbo/Adekunle ramp, to opt for the normal four lanes from their point of entry onto the bridge. Continuing public education and clear and adequate signage throughout the route will guarantee public trust and buy-in for this dynamic-lanes system.

In the longer term, solutions focused on spatial reordering in Lagos will complement short-term tinkering of traffic lanes on the Third Mainland Bridge. In particular, creating safe and well-maintained business clusters and parks in strategic axes on the mainland will help to reduce workers’ commute through congested traffic. Even as city planners pilot such redesign and structural solutions, Lagos stands to derive immediate and sizeable efficiency benefits from switching the existing bridge lanes to aid decongestion at peak traffic hours.

Policy recommendations

  • The Lagos state government needs to explore bolder innovations in traffic management, including the redesign of lanes along major commuter routes and arteries to optimise carrying capacities, even as planners work on longer-term solutions.
  • Lagos should leverage the dynamic-routing experience of commuter cities such as Tokyo and Los Angeles. A scheduled switching of the eight-lane, Third Mainland Bridge to form a 6+2 lane system during peak traffic will help optimise flow and  expand the bridge’s carrying capacity. This should partially alleviate morning and afternoon traffic congestion.
  • More calibrated infrastructure investment is needed in Lagos. An explicit bias towards boosting commercial property development, security and business-enabling amenities on mainland Lagos is needed. Businesses should be incentivised to relocate from the island business districts to modern business parks situated close to working-class neighbourhoods on the mainland.
  • In a next step, a holistic spatial redesign of the city should be pursued within a new city masterplan that gives careful thought to decongestion, commuting, and access to services and infrastructure on a more inclusive, sustainable basis. This will create a better urban experience and deliver efficiencies in terms of integrated transportation, housing and commercial zoning.
  • A bridge corps should also be created to police makeshift lanes demarcated by cones placed at intervals, better to guarantee partition of the travel directions.
Dr Ola Bello, @drolabello holds MPhil and PhD degrees from Cambridge University and is the Executive Director of Good Governance Africa Nigeria (GGA). Copyright©2018 Vol 4, No 9. GGA Nigeria. All rights reserved.

Rewriting the rule book

Omoyele Sowore Photo: ‘Fisayo Soyombo

With every new election cycle, Nigeria is inching closer to producing its own Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau. That hope is fuelled by the confidence with which the younger generation are aspiring to the highest Nigerian office.

A quick run through of the names and ages of candidates currently campaigning to take President Muhammadu Buhari’s job in 2019 is illustrative: Omoyele Sowore (47), Fela Durotoye (46), Thomas-Wilson Ikubese (47), Enyinnaya Nnaemeka Nwosu (40), Ahmed Buhari (40), Charles Udeogaranya (46), Mathias Tsado (41), Eniola Ojajuni (39), Olu James Omosule (48) and Tope Fasua (47).

Although there are some individuals in their fifties or sixties in the mix, the lineup of youth in the presidential race is heartwarming. Nigeria is a country where age — rather than such values as competence, moral presence or strength of character — often forms the main basis of respect. But youth are no longer the leaders of tomorrow; in Nigeria, young people want to be the leaders of today. And it appears they’re well on course.

Taiwo George, the 34-year-old editor of TheCable, Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, puts this down to a “rising youth consciousness to quit the blame game”. Now, young people want to influence political events from the centre. “Nigerian youth are becoming conscious of their role in politics,” He told Africa in Fact. “Unlike before, when they screamed from the sidelines, now they’re actively involved … They’re entering the political arena to contest, and they’re involved in advocacy as well.”

The call for change is gaining momentum. Next year, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest the presidential election. Similarly, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest some of the 36 state governorship seats on offer; 30-year-olds can now be senators, while 25-year-olds can win seats in the Federal House of Representatives and the state houses of assembly.

The age limits for these positions, in the order in which they have been listed, used to be 40, 35, 30, 25, 25. But in 2016, a coalition of youth groups united together to launch the “Not Too Young To Run” campaign — based on the principle that anyone who, at 18, isn’t too young to vote shouldn’t be too young to be voted for. An ambitious, if not audacious, target indeed. Yet considerable progress has been made. With 25-year-olds now eligible to seek legislative office, it is only a matter of time before the 18-year-old target is met as well.

After initial opposition from the upper and lower chambers, the “Not Too Young To Run” Bill was passed in July 2017. Two thirds of the 36 state assemblies followed suit in February this year to satisfy the legal requirements for turning the Bill into law. All that’s left is for Buhari to put pen to paper, and the deal is sealed.

In fact, Nigerian youth have always been involved in politics and elections, says ‘Sola Fagorusi, the programmes and media manager of Onelife Initiative, a non-profit organisation aimed at bringing sustainable social change to young people, but now their methods of involvement and the demography involved are changing.

Until recently, it was uneducated youth, largely living in villages or the outskirts of cities, who featured as party agents or aides to politicians, Fagorusi says. “Today, we are seeing youth engage in peer-to-peer mobilisation for voter registration and collection of the permanent voter card.”

An important part of this has been the capacity offered by the Internet, particularly as regards communication. Fagorusi, 35, attributes the success of recent youth campaigns to “the online amphitheatre, where unending conversations (both deep and shallow) about electoral issues are happening”.

The development has even influenced young people’s participation in primary elections, which were previously little more than “intra-party affairs”, he says. “Young people are also now starting political parties. There is the ANRP, for example – a political party by young people embracing both the elite and deprived. Young people in Nigeria today are doing more than just acting as the electoral umpire’s ad-hoc staff; they are claiming a stake simply by seeking positions within the party structure.”

But some young people are urging caution. The expectations created by the Not Too Young To Run excitement must be tempered with patience, says Rotimi Olawale, executive director of Youthhubafrica, a youth-led, non-profit organisation based in Nigeria that advocates education for girls and engaging in policy debates that impacts young people in Africa. Only when presidential assent is secure, he says, can youth truly start dreaming big politically.

“The most defining agenda for young people in Nigeria today is to crash the party,” Olawale says. “The success of this constitution amendment will see a lot of young people take up the challenge to run for office.” Meanwhile, he says the national, youth-led campaign to encourage young people to register to vote” has been “impressive”, and he is also excited by the rise in the number of “unconventional” political parties, which are providing a platform for youth political expression.

Sowore, one of the youngest 2019 presidential aspirants, recently launched an appeal to raise $2 million “via a clean, transparent and open manner to advance our movement and fund our election into the presidency without the interference of godfathers and godmothers”, as he puts it on his page on the site.

Although he started out as a rank outsider in the race to Aso Rock (Nigeria’s presidential villa), Sowore’s ambition to take on the country’s old guard sits well with the youth. Young people are either promoting his gofundme campaign or contributing to it, and by the time of writing in late May this year, some 575 people had contributed over $49,000. The old guard, meanwhile, sometimes lets its guard slip, and this does not go unnoticed. When Communications Minister Adebayo Shittu recently branded the 47-year-old “inconsequential” on live radio, young people leapt to his defence, saying the minister’s comment was “a slight” on the youth population.

A Sowore victory would have huge implications for the federal ruling class. His campaign machinery is manned entirely by young people, and his election would surely usher in a reign of Nigeria’s youngest-ever ruling elite. But even if he does lose, just the fact of his well-supported campaign will give momentum to efforts by young people to take the central political stage.

Nigerian youth no longer want to be the stooges of politicians or to be cannon fodder for them — useful during election time, but expendable once in power. They do not object to being the governed, but their condition for that is that they too can aspire to, and achieve a role in government. In short, Nigerian youth are discontented with their role as political spectators. Now, they aim to be direct players in the political space.

degree in animal science from the University of Ibadan. He was pioneer editor of TheCable (, Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, between April 2014 and January 2017. He is editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). An opinion contributor to Al Jazeera, his writings have been translated into German, French and Arabic. Soyombo has won numerous journalism honours, the latest being the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting (online category) in December 2017.

Forging their own paths

Image: Graeme Williams

Is Africa ready for the future? Is the continent ready to tackle the technological disruption and challenges of a rapidly changing world? Importantly, are its young people ready to take up the mantle of change?

Africa’s youth have moved from relative obscurity in political deliberations to centre stage in continental forums and conferences from Cape to Cairo. This new focus stems from concerns about how to educate and employ the millions of young people in Africa and so improve their livelihoods.

There are also concerns around the question of how to counter the potential challenges for social, economic, political and security policy from a large, restive youth population.

Firstly, it is important to note that the gap between modern economies and African markets is growing. Leaders talk about the challenges posed by the fact that some 60% of Africans are under 30 years old, but they seem unable or unwilling to recognise that this has real implications for their countries. This is despite the constant reminders from scenario planners, technology buffs and consultants. A new world is upon us – one in which traditional sectors and jobs are being disrupted by technology and replaced with artificial intelligence and robots.

This trend has been given a name – the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The term was coined by the World Economic Forum to describe a digital age in which technology is disrupting existing business models and sectors and, importantly, jobs. Meanwhile, much of Africa is viewed as being stuck in the Second Industrial Revolution, with governments prioritising industrial programmes and skills that will be disrupted, and even marginalised, by current technology trends, which present both huge opportunities for tech-savvy young entrepreneurs but also major challenges for employment for millions of unskilled young Africans.

There are pockets of Africa – sectors rather than countries – that have leapfrogged into the Third Industrial Revolution, in which the technologies of ICT and electronics are the drivers of change. Africa’s underdevelopment has provided a clean slate for technological innovation that bypasses traditional models to address longstanding challenges.

Energy is an example. With millions of Africans still far from a power grid, renewable energy innovations are reaching across the continent. An initiative in Kenya, M-Kopa Solar, has in five years connected more than half a million homes to its pay-as-you-go solar solution for rural and low-income households. It is now rolling out in Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana. In another example, the mobile revolution has highlighted the enormous appetite for technology and entrepreneurship among Africans, particularly the youth. Africa has seen the highest mobile phone growth of any region over the past decade.

According to the Mobile Ecosystem Forum, the continent has a subscription penetration (percentage of the population) of 82%, which is expected to reach 100% by 2021. Much of this growth will come from the new generation. This is also increasingly being shown in the banking sector. According to the UN, 12% of adults in Africa have mobile bank accounts as compared with 2% of adults globally.

In Kenya it is as high as 58%. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty has coined the phrase “new-collar jobs” to describe work that doesn’t require a traditional degree but does require high skills levels in areas such as cyber security, data science, artificial intelligence and the cloud. This describes workers who sit somewhere between “blue collar” and “white collar” on the traditional work spectrum. She first raised it in 2016 in an open letter to then president elect Donald Trump, detailing ways she felt Americans could benefit from advances in technology.

The private sector, recognising the potential opportunity – and challenges – of Africa’s demographic, has stepped in, focusing efforts on these “new-collar” jobs. For example, IBM has, with the UN, launched a $70 million initiative to create jobs in Africa, focused on digital literacy. It aims to train 25 million youths over five years, kicking off in five countries – South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa initiative offers skills training and linked job opportunities for Africa’s young people. More than 150,000 youths have already been trained and 455,000 connected to jobs. There are many other international initiatives of this kind. But these efforts are not limited to international interventions.

Africans are also coming to the party. A leading player is Nigerian philanthropist and businessman Tony Elumelu, chairman of Heirs Holdings. His foundation is spending $100 million on entrepreneur training programmes in Africa. Africa’s youths are its future and their fate cannot be left to chance, he told Africa in Fact. “Africa’s development will have at its heart young African innovators and their transformative ideas. Only they will create the millions of jobs Africa needs.”

The African Development Bank Group (AfDB) has launched a “Jobs for Youths” strategy to create 25 million jobs over 10 years. African millionaire Ashish Thakkar, chairman of pan-African investment firm Mara Group, is a member of the AfDB’s Presidential Youth Advisory Group. He says it is vital that Africans acquire the right skills sets for the future.

“With artificial intelligence and everything else that is happening, the reality is that what we are training our youth for today may not be relevant in 10 years’ time,” he told Africa in Fact. “So it is important to see how we can create systems and thinking to get them to learn, unlearn, and relearn when necessary.” Similar initiatives are gaining traction. Technology hubs are driving innovation across the continent. According to the mobile operators’ association, GSMA, there were 314 technology hubs in 93 cities across 42 countries in 2017, and the number is growing.

Non-governmental organisations are playing a key role in delivering innovation to communities around Africa. But the initiatives currently in play are a drop in the ocean compared to the need. Meanwhile, the continent’s leaders, who might have been expected to take a lead in such an important matter, appear to be stuck in redundant ways of thinking that have not delivered development over the past few decades, let alone knowledge-based economies.

The continent’s developmental challenges are still enormous. Out of the 37 countries listed in the 2017 Low Human Development category of the UN Human Development Index, some 31 are African. This is what young people stand to inherit. The popular view that rising labour costs in China will lead to millions of low-skilled jobs relocating to Africa is optimistic, given the automation of work globally and the lack of skills and low productivity in Africa.

There is a concern that digital transformation could increase Africa’s income gap even further, given the challenges in education. The new skills and competencies required by 4IR are not being taught in schools in Africa, where thousands of children don’t have classrooms, let alone computers. Connectivity in Africa still trails behind at 21% as compared to the global average of over 40%, and more than 70% in the European Union, according to the International Telecommunications Union.

Rather than stimulating entrepreneurship, policymakers are regulating it. A general lack around the continent of enabling policy in this regard is acting as a handbrake on progress. Governments in Africa don’t understand the integral role that technology can play in an economy, according to Ghanaian Bright Simons, president of digital company mPedigree Network. They treat it as a marginal factor, and fail to see that it is a transformational sector that, properly stimulated, could increase economic inclusion and growth.

Africa is not short of young entrepreneurs with good ideas, ambition, energy and talent, which can be harnessed to drive more inclusive growth. Young people are also impatient for change. As their access to information increases, they will gain more power to hold their leaders accountable, and to push for a new political agenda that will allow them input into the processes and policies that shape their lives.

But digitally savvy young Africans across the continent are mostly being left to forge their own paths through a rapidly changing world. If Africa is to realise and build on the opportunities presented by 4IR, a radical mindset change at the policy level will be necessary. Policymakers should be seeking every opportunity to support, and not hinder, the modernisation of African economies. Young people are increasingly recognising that this is the only way to build a decent future for themselves, and one day, their children.

DIANNA GAMES is the chief executive of business consultancy Africa @ Work and a regular columnist on African issues for Business Day newspaper. She is and a regular columnist on African issues for Business Day newspaper. She is a fellow of the GIBS Centre for Dynamic Markets in Johannesburg.

Act now or risk losing an entire generation

Children from Kuma Garadayat (North Darfur) Image: UNAMID

Africa’s youth employment and education trends are worrying. Over the next few years much of the continent will be affected by two trends, namely continued high levels of unemployment and continuing high fertility rates.

The latter, in particular, will lead to bulging youth populations in many countries around the continent. If not addressed adequately and quickly through appropriate policy actions the result will be disharmony – and possibly much worse – as well as even higher unemployment in the future. Africa’s working age population (those 15 years and older) will pass one billion people by 2030, according to United Nations (UN) statistics. That will be a 45% increase from 2105.

Of the 73 million jobs created in Africa between 2000 and 2008, only 22% were filled by youth, according to statistics from the International Labor Organization (ILO). The rate of unemployment among youth is currently estimated to be double that of adults in most African countries, according to the same study. The African Development Bank said in a 2015 report that creating new jobs and simply lowering the youth unemployment rate to that of adults would lead to an increase in Africa’s GDP of between 10% and 20%.

While the bank did not indicate a time frame, the increase would be significant even over a period of decades. More worrying, though, is that the structural composition of Africa’s labour force is not expected to shift significantly during this period. The African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), an economic policy institute based in Accra, Ghana, has argued that the lack of structural transformation of Africa’s economies could dampen opportunities for long-term economic growth.

A similar scenario may play out for employment in Africa. Unless structural changes emerge that are supported by robust and well-articulated policies, the labour force will neither respond to opportunities created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR; see the articles by ‘Gbenga Sesan, Dianna Games and Toby Shapshak in this edition of Africa in Fact), nor meet the needs of Africa’s youthful population.

For example, according to 2017 ILOSTAT data, Africa’s labour sector share in agriculture will decline from 67.5% in 2015 to 61.5% in 2030 for low-income countries. As another example, Africa’s labour sector share in trade and transport will decline from 25.1% in 2015 to 24.3% in 2030 for upper middle-income countries.

These incremental shifts will not allow Africa to capitalise on global trends in employment, which are now mainly driven by technology and innovation. Likewise, 2017 ILOSTAT survey data covering 25 African countries shows a very low labour sector share in manufacturing – only between 6% and 8% of total employment. That share is expected to decrease between 2015 and 2030, just when manufacturing could be driving employment generation.

The troubling labour trends are coupled with poor education outcomes. Last year, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) calculated that Africa needs to enroll 33 million young people in vocational and training education in secondary schools, whereas there were only four million enrolled in 2012. According to the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realise Education’s Promise, fewer than 7% of children in primary school are basically proficient in reading, while just 14% are basically proficient in mathematics.

The report notes a wide range of challenges, including children often suffering from illness or income deprivation. At the same time, teacher absenteeism is a significant challenge, as is the basic education of teachers in many countries. While many African countries certainly do face policy challenges when it comes to youth employment and skills agendas, it is also true that the types of jobs likely to be created over the coming decades may offer significant potential upsides.

For example, according to a working paper by James Bessen in 2016, it is estimated that computer use is associated with a 0.3% rise in overall national employment. Likewise, productivity growth (for example, from enhanced technology and innovation) in an industry tends to generate positive employment spillovers elsewhere in the economy, according to a 2017 study by David Autor and Anna Salomons. A one-unit increase in new automation leads to a 0.2% increase in the employment to population ratio, according to a 2017 article by Katja Mann and Lukas Putterman.

The new economy is also expanding opportunities. For example, online job sites and social networking platforms allow for a more diversified labour market participation, particularly for young women and disadvantaged groups. New jobs are being created that did not exist before, and market-entry space has been created for entrepreneurs – particularly regarding social enterprises. While there are concerns about job losses associated with automation and technology, we feel that the pace of change will likely allow Africa to see a net positive benefit over the medium term.

However, even with strong policy design and implementation, not all sectors will contribute equally to employment growth in Africa. It is likely that a few particular sectors will be the primary economic drivers. The ICT service sector has strong prospects in business process outsourcing (BPO), which is likely to bring more people into the labour markets, including women. Some studies indicate that one in four jobs in the United States have been – or could be – offshore in the future, according to a 2013 working paper by Alan S. Blinder and Alan B. Krueger. Interesting business models for medical services are developing that are increasingly taken offshore to countries such as India, China, the Philippines and South Africa. In India, the BPO industry already employs more than three million workers, 30% of who are women. In the Philippines, BPO employs 2.3% of all workers, according to the World Development Report 2016, Digital Dividends.

A delegate at the youth-led meeting entitled “1 + 4 = 16 Targeting Poverty and Education for Peace” at the UN, 2016 Photo: DPI/UN

Agriculture also has significant potential to provide additional and higher-income jobs for the future, mostly due to high-end technology. Drones are being used for remote sensing, farm equipment is increasingly robotised to improve precision agriculture, and “telephone farming” is enabling city dwellers to farm remotely with access to irrigation, lighting, heating and weather-station data with smart-phone technology. According to a recent report by ACET, Agriculture Powering Africa’s Economic Transition, employment in Africa could be significantly boosted by the development of agricultural value chains, including agro-processing, input manufacturing and agricultural services. These sub-industries could open a host of productive employment opportunities in non-farm sectors.

Many of these jobs are likely to be attractive to Africa’s expanding population of educated youth, most of who do not think of “farming” as an appealing vocation. In the long term, bringing more young people into farming is essential for replacing the ageing traditional smallholders who are now the backbone of African agriculture.

While, according to the ILOSTAT data, the share of jobs in manufacturing will decline over the coming period, it will continue to be an important sector for employment. A few countries, such as Ethiopia, are starting to capitalise on the emerging opportunities in this sector. African manufacturing has traditionally lacked automation to boost productivity and competitiveness. Automation, of course, requires upskilling and improved infrastructure. The existing high-tech infrastructure could be adapted; indeed, in many cases it is only being expanded now, for example, with cellular networks and industrial electricity grids.

Moreover, a 2018 study from Karishma Banga and Dirk Willem te Velde of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) indicates that African countries have a window of opportunity to move into somewhat less automated sectors, where technology installation has been slower. Automation varies greatly across sectors, with automotive and electronics sectors at the forefront while food processing and furniture production lag behind. This provides an opportunity for local and regional focused manufacturing.

Even as these industries become susceptible to automation, the 2018 report by ODI points out that Africa’s lower labour costs mean that African countries will have about a decade or longer to adjust before cost of robots fall enough to replace human labour.

This window should be used to build manufacturing capabilities and a continued focus on improvements in basic infrastructure such as a reliable power supply, telecommunications and roads – combined with a targeted approach to building industrial capabilities.

There are multiple approaches whereby African governments can immediately address the medium-term demand for skills for youth. Capitalising on the so-called “demographic dividend” represented by the high proportion of young people will not be automatic; it will require effective and ongoing policy implementation.

Firstly, Africa’s economies must create sufficient productive jobs, which requires strong and sustained growth. The Brookings Institution (2018) estimates the required economic growth to be in a range of between eight and nine percent. Industrial policies should favour labour intensity. Sectors such as agriculture and agro-processing, infrastructure, wholesale and retail trade, and tourism are particularly good candidates relative to their current growth rates and their economy-wide (infrastructure) or multi-sector (tourism) multiplier effects.

The transformation of the continent’s economies is crucial to ramp up growth. Clearly, governments will need to engage industry much more deeply and constructively than they have in the past. From a demand-side perspective, industry will need to be involved in improving skills quality and in enhancing access to technical and vocational training.

This can be facilitated by establishing skills councils and by industry participation in the quality assurance and assessment of learners. Government/industry collaboration on staff and student internships and training partnerships would be a critical element in this, based on national, regional and global best practice.

Likewise, governments will need to rapidly address regulatory and investment climates to expand job creation for youth. While making it easier to do business and improving the investment climate are important to industrial policy in particular, they are crucial regarding employment more generally.

This is because technologies are new and regulatory authorities, which tend to be conservative and understaffed, may not be nimble enough to develop needed regulations or may create stifling regulation based on poor understanding or unwarranted fears. Kenya, for example, has been at the forefront in creating a regulatory framework conducive to mobile banking, but fairly erratic in the development of drone regulations.

At first, the country banned drones but then it introduced punitive drone regulations, charging exorbitant fees for their use. A recent ACET survey indicates a low level of awareness among policymakers of new technologies and their relevance to creating youth employment opportunities.

However, some governments are taking experimental approaches to help increase understanding. For example, South Africa’s Reserve Bank will allow experimentation with block-chain technology – a secure transaction ledger database that is shared by all parties participating in an established, distributed network of computers – in the banking sector because this will allow the institution to better understand them and thus to devise an appropriate regulatory regime.

Governments will not only need to expand and deepen skills development but focus on quality of skills for youth. Investment is needed in modern competencies for teachers and instructors, as well as updated teaching, learning and training facilities. While there has been some movement toward ICT-supported learning, it is not widely adopted or supported in most African nations. Enhanced cellular and broadband capabilities will enable African countries to leverage existing learning platforms.

But, of course, this will require adequate financing, which cannot be provided only by the public sector. African governments will need to establish dialogues and partnerships with the private sector to jointly finance quality skills development.

Finally, it will be necessary to improve access to – and perceptions of – technical and vocational education training (TVET) for and among Africa’s youth. Currently, perceptions of TVET among African policymakers and youth alike are that it is less prestigious, and less likely to result in improved socio-economic status, than tertiary academic education. TVET is therefore poorly funded, while facilities often do not cater to girls or people with disabilities. Governments need to invest more in understanding the demand for technical skills, and to make formal, concerted efforts to match skills to demand.

Presently, the opportunities are greater than the challenges as regards ensuring that Africa’s young people are provided with the skills that enable them to get jobs and build livelihoods. But all stakeholders will need to work together – and work quickly. In most instances, the required policy actions can be derived from global and regional best practices. That is not to say they are easy; there will be winners and losers. But it is imperative to manage the wins and losses now if we are to avoid losing an entire generation of young people, who are the future of Africa.

ROB FLOYD is an international development executive with broad experience in strategy design and implementation, programme management, and partnerships. Before joining the African Center for Economic Transformation in Washington DC, he worked for more than 20 years at the World Bank Group across multiple regions, sectors and in institutional leadership positions. At ACET, he contributes to a range of strategic initiatives including raising the profile of ACET outside of Africa, fundraising, partnerships and the forward-looking business model.
JULIUS GATUNE is a senior policy advisor at the African Center for Economic Transformation in Washington DC. He has extensive experience in long-term planning. Prior to joining ACET, he worked at McKinsey & Co. Julius has a PhD in policy analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School and a Masters in computer science from the University of Cambridge.

From unexpressed anger to participation

The year was 2002 and the location a bank’s training facility in a quiet area of Nairobi. They all came from different countries but had one thing in common: every young woman and man in the room had been able to discuss their ideas concerning youth participation in governance during the previous few weeks. The medium that had enabled this was the Internet.

That meeting of the African Youth Parliament, in October and November of that year, addressed many issues relating to the concerns and interest of Africa’s young people. One aspect of it, however, was hardly noticed at the time. With hindsight, though, it is possible to see the novel role that technology had played in making the meeting happen.

Moreover, it helped the delegates to keep in touch, and has continued to do so as they make an impact in their various countries. Internet access – at least the “plug-and-pray” variety that you had to be patient with back then – was spreading across Africa at the turn of the 21st century. Meanwhile, young Africans wanted to contribute to the democratic politics that was defining their future. The Internet was a useful tool that served that growing need.

Meetings at which young Africans expressed anger at the lack of opportunities to participate in politics were not new, but the chance to connect with people who were not in the same physical space was. It was exciting because the more the conversation progressed, the more it was clear that we shared similar experiences and expectations, and also that we faced the same lack of opportunities.

What had started, often on campuses, as an introduction to a new way of communication was soon woven into the fabric of our burgeoning social networks. Social mobility, which had previously been so glacial, began to unfreeze in Africa between 2007 and 2009, when social networks began to connect people who faced similar issues across the continent. For example, many Nigerians were dissatisfied with formal politics after the flawed 2007 elections, which came to be nicknamed iwuruwuru – a neologism that played on the name of the chairman of the Nigerian Independent National Electoral Commission at the time, Maurice Iwu, and the Yoruba word for “cunning”.

By 2009 that anger was finding expression on social media platforms, including BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Facebook and others. Young people in particular adopted these tools with enthusiasm. Protests in 2010, triggered by the prolonged absence of a president seeking healthcare overseas and rumours of a power hijack by a “cabal”, saw yet more activism and exchange of information through social media. The 2011 elections saw citizens using tools like ReVoDa, an election-monitoring mobile app, to take action.

Though labeled clicktivists at the time, it was clear that such tools allowed the safety of near anonymity while at the same time providing outlets for angry expression and enabling people to organise action. This is how the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests happened, building on the opportunism of opposition parties and a tired labour movement that needed but lacked the capacity for mass action. Social media have proved useful in connecting angry citizens and amplifying issues through these phases of Nigeria’s democratic experience. In 2013, Nigerian citizens began to stand up for each other in a different way, through various “#SaveCitizen” efforts that saw young people raising funds online for people in health emergency situations, helping to save lives.

When insurrectionist movement Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from Chibok in 2014, #BringBackOurGirls tweets soon began showing up, because people were familiar with the social medium. Government had failed to act and it looked like it would also try to cover up the abduction, but social media gave citizens a way around their apparent helplessness in the face of terrorism and government inaction, and also enabled concrete action.

This trend explains why, in 2015, social media played a major role in the elections that led to the first incumbent president’s loss in Nigeria’s democratic history. Throughout 2016 and 2017, social media continued to play an important role in citizen activism, with public officials being called out and concrete reforms demanded. The new social media involved elements of citizen solidarity and citizen activism – and they enabled calls for measurable action. Similar campaigns have sprung up elsewhere in Africa. In Kenya, for example, the #WhatIsARoad campaign calls attention to roads that need repairs. From Algeria (#Feb12) to Zimbabwe (#ThisFlag), social media campaigns have taken protest to the streets and forced governments to pay (at least some) attention to social ills.

This year, much is happening in the democratic spaces created or enabled by social media. Once confined to the sidelines, young people are participating and demanding more engagement, especially with the aid of technology platforms and tools.

In Nigeria, a group drafted a legislative Bill, nicknamed the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill, to demand reduced qualification ages for citizens wishing to run for political office, including the office of the president. Another youth-led group drafted a Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that has now been passed by both chambers of parliament and now only needs presidential assent. A mobile application that followed a typical path from development to implementation has been used to monitor elections in Nigeria since 2011.

On September 28, 2010, I wrote to 14 young people who I knew had a flair for technology, arguing that we needed “a tech meet up to brainstorm towards 2011”, as I put it to them. I urged them to consider working to help create social media formats that would have popular appeal, and consider wider uses for “tech”. About three weeks later, the group of young people gathered in a function room at the University of Lagos’ Centre for Information Technology and Systems to brainstorm. From that meeting, the idea of a #NigeriaDecides project was born. Working with another youth-led group, Enough is Enough Nigeria – which had emerged from a similar youth, governance and technology intersection – we set up in a conference room at Beni Apartments in Victoria Island, Lagos to develop a new app.

The final product, ReVoDa – a play on “Registered Voter Database” – offered a crowd-sourced opportunity to monitor and report on elections without having to go through the bureaucracy of registration with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, and it was used by citizens all around the country to monitor the 2011 elections. Technology is opening doors for a new generation of democratic actors because it gives them access to tools that allow people to mobilise effectively. From that beginning in 2011 we have broadened our horizons and we are looking beyond mobilising around occasional elections. A new generation of young people is lighting candles against the darkness of apathy.

New initiatives in social enterprise, business and civic education, among other areas, are coming to the fore, enabled by technology. These initiatives are helping to force governments to get involved in conversations about standards of governance and their implementation. Even the daily actions of government can now be subjected to scrutiny and immediate feedback through technology platforms. Social media are redefining citizen-government interaction.

In April, for instance, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, answering questions at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London, claimed that many young Nigerians wanted “everything for free” because Nigeria is seen as an oil-rich nation.

The same day he got immediate, critical feedback from young Nigerians through a new hashtag, #LazyNigerianYouths, and the presidency had to release a statement “clarifying” the president’s statements. Internet technology is providing opportunities for citizen engagement with and critique of governments that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago. I have no doubt that it will further shape Africa’s democratic experience over the next few years, and beyond.

‘Gbenga Sesan is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative (, a social enterprise that works on Digital Rights and Digital Inclusion in Africa.

Looking for a way ourt

Men in Mogadishu, Somalia, are rounded up by the Somali Police Force to be screened during an operation aimed at improving security in the city . AU UN IST PHOTO/ TOBIN JONES.

Democratic societies are perceived as vulnerable to terrorist acts because their more open and permissive nature offers lower cost opportunities for extremists to carry out terrorist operations. The empirical evidence, however, demonstrates just the opposite: democracies that are responsive to public demands and respect civil liberties, minority rights and the rule of law are far less likely to experience both domestic and transnational terrorism than other types of regimes.

Studies have found, for example, that states that avoid illegal use of torture or other cruel treatment against citizens experience less terrorist violence, as do systems with effective and impartial judiciaries that are viewed as legitimate. Societies suffering from severe social, political, ethnic, and/or economic fragmentation and inequality, on the other hand, are more at risk of terrorist attacks. These tend to be non-democratic countries, particularly those in civil conflict.

More recently, we are witnessing an important exception to these general findings: a number of well-established democracies are experiencing an increase in transnational terrorist attacks. Perceived grievances toward armed interventions are helping extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS radicalise and recruit more adherents to their cause. This takes the form of foreign fighters from both democratic and non-democratic countries travelling to places such as Syria to take up arms for sectarian purposes.

We have also seen an increase in the number of “lone wolf” attacks in democratic Europe and North America by fanatics who, inspired by apocalyptic visions, are prepared to use any violent means at their disposal to kill and maim innocent civilians and stoke fear among the general population. Nonetheless, among those countries experiencing the highest rates of deadly terrorism, democracies are disproportionately under-represented. And of the 65 major violent extremist organisations that have emerged since 1992, 51 are present in less democratic countries.

Drivers of terrorist violence are multiple and complex and vary from locality to locality. Much more research is needed to better understand the motivations and mindsets of both the elites that organise such movements and their adherents. Nonetheless, as far as governance factors are concerned, explanations for these findings revolve around the inability of authoritarian, failing, and weak states to find political solutions for the underlying grievances that radicalise people to take such extreme measures.

Chronic political problems such as under-representation or exclusion from government power, or economic discrimination based on religion or ethnicity, are better addressed in pluralist democratic systems with open, competitive elections and fair administration of the rule of law. States that take multidimensional approaches to deal with root causes – political, social, psychological, community, educational, and economic strategies combined with fair criminal justice procedures – stand a better chance of minimising extremism.

That said, some terrorists with apocalyptic objectives will probably never be persuaded that entering politics will take them to their destination. The leaders of ISIS, for example, see history as a twilight struggle between cultures in which the individual is a disposable pawn. They fill innocent young minds with poison, spew lies while claiming sole ownership of the truth, pervert the teaching of one of the world’s great religions, and seek to achieve their goals by trying to bludgeon us into panic and retreat.

Liberal democracies are by design more committed to fundamental principles of political participation of all sectors of society and full respect for human rights and the rule of law. They also suffer fewer deadly terrorist attacks. Any comprehensive strategy to counter and prevent violent extremism, therefore, must include measures to strengthen and uphold these common features of liberal democracy. The first responsibility of any nation is to defend its territory, its people, and its way of life.

Three young men are led by a member of the Somali Police Force to a holding area. AU UN IST PHOTO/ TOBIN JONES.

The countries that have been attacked by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other extremist organisations have the right to respond with military force to take terrorist leaders off the battlefield and recapture territory. But to ultimately succeed in the fight against violent extremism, we must understand that although weakness encourages terrorism, overreaction spreads it. Young people are a specific group of interest in discussions about violent extremism, and violence more generally.

This phase of life is marked by continued socialisation and identity formation, a stage in which youth are assumed to be more vulnerable to external influences such as extremist and criminal groups. This generalisation, however, denies the significant agency that young people display, and the multiple roles as well as gender differences associated with their decisions. While the youthfulness of populations in many developing countries is associated with increased security risks, it is also the source of potential demographic dividends if young people are recognised also as contributors to society, including as political actors, employees, parents, and citizens.

A wide range of studies on young people’s associations with violent extremism point to different sets of factors that operate together to influence or protect against young people’s involvement in violent extremism. Political factors, such as the absence or weakness of the state and official corruption, experienced by youth as neglect, disinterest or even victimisation, can motivate young people to seek alternative means for achieving their needs (including socio-economic needs and protection from abuse) in extremist groups and associations; this has been observed in Mali and Nigeria. Evidence also suggests that repressive government actions, including human rights abuses, exacerbate discontent and anger directed at the government.

Allegations of extra-judicial executions in Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria appear to be a motivating factor for the youth who join Al-Shabaab, ISIS and Boko Haram, respectively. The targeting of ethnic and/or religious communities has shown similar responses from young people, for example, actions taken by Kenyan security agencies against Kenyan Somalis during Operation Usalama Watch in 2014. Government-sponsored abuses have been shown to foment political and social divisiveness, creating greater vulnerabilities to extremist groups. While poverty and related socio-economic factors are often assumed to be a driver of young people joining extremist groups, the evidence indicates more complexity in these associations.

A study from Mali, for example, confirmed a link between youth unemployment and their involvement with armed jihadist groups. However, it was also shown that young people ended up in these groups despite having sources of income that they considered satisfactory prior to their involvement, and that additional factors were at play, including the protection of their livelihoods or illicit activities such as drug trafficking. The significant number of ISIS recruits that come from middle-class backgrounds, with some holding stable, well-paid jobs in developed countries, argues for far more nuanced explanations that are not centered only on economic factors.

Psychological and social issues such as disillusionment and frustration due to perceptions of limited pathways to achieve progress relating to personal or political goals might lead young people to seek other avenues to achieve these goals, including joining extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab.

The issue may also be one of exclusion from the economy or certain sectors of it, rather than unemployment itself. Using Belgium as an example – the country with the largest employment gap between foreign nationals and nationals in Europe – a 2015 article by Chris Blattmann argues that economic exclusion is compounded by social or racial differences and draws the conclusion that “the shame and injustice of exclusion, not poverty, is what leads so many to rebel”.

Factors associated with family, parenting, and social systems have emerged in other studies. In Mauritania, many young people involved in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were found to be from divorced families. While this in itself likely can be managed with strong family support, the lack of parental supervision and care for orphaned or abandoned children has been increasingly linked to radicalisation in communities in northern Nigeria.

A further parallel among recruits is what researchers have referred to as “absent father syndrome”. There appears to be a link between abandonment or abuse by fathers during childhood and entry into violence in later years. Moreover, the propensity of youth to be strongly influenced by charismatic (typically) male leaders or recruiters appears to be greater in cases where the father was absent from a child’s life. In Somalia, the absence of father figures among men and boys that have joined Al-Shabaab is also significant. A 2013 study by James Ferguson found that the years of war in Somalia have destroyed multi-generational family connections that serve to nurture and guide young people. These issues relating to identity and belonging reverberate in other empirical studies, especially where the attractiveness of ISIS is considered.

A 2015 study by Ömer Taşpinar describes ISIS as a “pseudo-state in search of citizens”, and those that join as searching for belonging and acceptance. This finding is echoed in a study of ISIS defectors carried out by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. Issues around identity must be understood in a global context of young people who, for different reasons, are struggling to find a place of belonging and acceptance. Many recommendations for addressing young people’s attraction to or direct involvement in extremist groups echo the obligations already embedded in international policy frameworks, and those in other research produced in the Democracy and Security Dialogue:

• Local drivers demand local responses. Policy responses should be tailored to the complex local conditions faced by young people, and recognise that no single factor – economics, religion or ideology, for example – sufficiently explains why young people become involved in extremist groups.

• Tailor strategies to the varied roles of young men and women. Young people play multiple roles in their communities – as caregivers as well as students and workers. Differences in how young men and women’s roles in society are determined, as well as their choices in relation to associations with extremist groups, are also important to understand. Policies should rely on the best available interdisciplinary research and practices to understand these dynamics.

• Include youth in politics. Creating avenues and reducing barriers for young people’s political and economic participation and leadership are central to addressing the factors associated with violent extremism.

• Stop abuses and seek accountability for youth victims. Eliminating state-sponsored violence against young people and promoting the means to seek redress where victimisation is perceived or experienced should also be central objectives in addressing violent extremism.

This piece is summarised from a report of the Democracy and Security Dialogue of the Community of Democracies, titled Liberal Democracy and the Path to Peace and Security. The full report, and the publications that contributed to it, may be accessed at:

A positive force for Africa’s future

Adolescents living with HIV in Africa should be a priority population for health – and in particular mental health – interventions. The wellbeing of today’s youth will determine not only their future, but also our continent and region’s future and our ability to reach the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Yet this future is currently looking fragile and challenged, given the many intertwined health and social problems faced by Africa’s youth. Africa is indeed a “youthful” continent: about 60% of the total population is under 25 years of age, according to the UN. Moreover, the continent’s youth population is predicted to rise more than any other region in the world, from an estimated 230 million in 2015 to 535 million by 2065. Africa is, sadly, also the continent that carries the highest HIV burden.

Of the 2.1 million adolescents living with HIV globally, about 1.7 million (84%) live in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Additionally, African adolescents represent a growing proportion of people living with HIV, and the only population group for which AIDS-related deaths have increased over the past decade. As highlighted by UNICEF, this can be attributed largely to the fact that a generation of children who were infected with the virus at birth are now growing into adolescence.

As a 2014 study by Elizabeth Lowenthal and others reminds us, this trend is giving rise to challenges that will intensify over the next decade, especially in the sub-Saharan African region, where the ability of fragile health systems to reverse the epidemic and address the needs of life-long care and treatment will continue to be tested. A better understanding of the risk and protective factors for the health of HIV-affected adolescents is of critical importance if we are to develop responses aimed at protecting these young people’s wellbeing and survival.

This will require a holistic approach to health, in line with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) definition, which sees physical, mental and social health as integral and inter-related components of a healthy life. Adolescence – defined by WHO as the 10-19 age range – is a challenging time in an individual’s life cycle, and this is true in any context or continent. It is a time of growth, change, exploration and experimentation, and as a result, also a time of particular health and mortality risks.

As highlighted in a WHO 2014 global report on adolescent health, adolescents are more likely to engage in substance use, sexual risks and other high-risk behaviours. UNICEF estimates that the proportion of adolescents with mental health symptoms is rising globally, with one in four adolescent children experiencing symptoms more than once a week. Depression is reported to be the leading cause of illness and disability among 15 to 19-year-olds globally, and suicide the first cause of death. These alarming figures are likely to be higher for African adolescents, many of who are also exposed to multiple social stressors such as poverty, violence and HIV. In particular, young adults living with HIV are likely to face what Lowenthal et al refer to as “recurrent and cumulative psychological stressors”.

A sign of the times on a house in Uganda.

These include dealing with chronic illness, medicine adherence and the side effects of chronic medication while having to negotiate sexual relationships. In many cases, these adolescents also have to confront possible stigma, orphanhood and death in the family. Poor mental health can, in turn, be linked to many other factors in life, including poor quality of life, behavioural problems, worse educational outcomes, high-risk behaviours and lower retention in HIV treatment and care.

These may lead to increased rates of HIV transmission and AIDS-related illness and death. These risks, of course, extend beyond adolescence to an individual’s adult life and more broadly to society. As a 2017 UNICEF Research Brief indicates, mental health disorders can result in a health cost that is some 10 times higher during adolescence than during adulthood. They can also affect the ability to contribute positively to the economy and society later in life. The inclusion of mental health within the UN “Good Health and Wellbeing” Sustainable Development Goal for 2030 (SDG3 in the diagram below) arguably marked a long overdue turning point in terms of recognising the importance of protecting mental health.

However, mental health still remains relatively poorly resourced compared to physical health, with access to and uptake of mental health care services especially limited in low and middle-income countries. As I have argued in the past, we have also paid too little attention to the social component of health, the third key pillar of the WHO definition, which is very closely related to psychological wellbeing. While a common, widely accepted definition does not exist, “social health” can be taken to broadly refer to positive and beneficial interaction with other people and society at large.

A wealth of evidence links social interaction and relationships to better physical and mental health outcomes. According to a 2010 review by Julianne Holt-Lunstad et al, covering 148 studies conducted worldwide with 308,849 individuals, more or better-quality relationships are as important predictors of mortality as other well-established risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. “Social support” – defined as the “functional nature or quality” of social relations – is a key dimension in explaining the links between social relations and health. This refers to the emotional, informational and instrumental assistance that people need to stay healthy or adapt to stress. It can include such things as the availability of healthcare, information or advice, lifts to a health facility, and money or food, among others.

A large body of global research links social support to better mental health and lower odds of suicide, including among adolescent populations and individuals living with chronic illness. Yet very little large-scale empirical research has been done on the relationship between mental health and social support among HIV-affected populations in Africa, and evidence on effective interventions is even scarcer. This is even more so the case specifically for HIV-affected adolescents.

The research on social support and health that I have conducted over the past decade was motivated by the realisation of this gap, and the information I gathered while interviewing caregivers and children in rural and semi-urban HIV-affected South African communities over 2005-2009. Several caregivers of children – in some cases grandmothers taking care of multiple children of deceased or absent offspring – spoke of how important the help they received from their family and community was for their ability to cope, both emotionally and physically, with the many hardships they faced daily.

The first mixed-methods research I led on these themes was part of a larger South African health survey, the Young Carers project, a collaboration between Oxford and Brown universities, the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, the South African government and other NGOs and research institutions. The study involved approximately 2,500 caregivers of adolescents living in communities highly affected by HIV. As reported in a 2014 article, my colleagues and I found that caregivers with more social support were less likely to experience anxiety and depression and more likely to have better self-reported physical health, as well as to practice more “positive” parenting.

These findings prompted me to start exploring the links between caregiver and adolescent support and wellbeing. In a subsequent analysis, published in 2015, I found that adolescent children of caregivers who received more social support were in fact less likely to have behavioural problems (for example, conduct problems, hyperactivity and emotional symptoms) and more likely to demonstrate pro-social behaviour (that is, behaviour intended to help others). However, better parenting approaches and better mental health of caregivers who were more supported only partially explained this phenomenon. My colleagues and I advanced a further hypothesis: that these adolescents may also have been receiving more support directly from individuals within the caregiver’s social network. We could not test this hypothesis in the 2015 study, but it was supported by subsequent qualitative work with a smaller group (24) of caregivers from this sample. Among other things, these caregivers believed that their adolescent children’s wellbeing was positively affected by the support they (the caregivers) received. This, they explained, was partly a result of their (caregivers) better psychological wellbeing, and better parenting and decision-making, which in turn had positive effects on their children’s lives. In addition, the children gained much information, encouragement and advice directly from individuals in the carer’s network.

More recent and on-going analyses, with 1,000 adolescents in the Eastern Cape who had initiated HIV treatment, have allowed me the opportunity to start looking at how social support received directly by adolescents living with HIV may affect their mental health and suicide risk. This work uses data from the Mzantsi Wakho project, a mixed-methods research project led by Oxford University and the University of Cape Town, which also involved part of the Young Carers research group.

Preliminary findings suggest that these adolescents on HIV treatment can be protected from depression and suicidal tendencies linked to experiences of stigma through social support provided by their social network, and participation in clinic support groups that provide informational and emotional support. This is particularly salient, since stigma is sadly still widespread among people living with HIV, with almost half of the adolescents in this study reporting some experience of being stigmatised. Moreover, adolescents who received more support from their social network appeared to be less likely to experience depression more generally, and therefore suicidal thoughts and behaviour. What reflections can we draw from these specific findings, as well as the broader research and context?

Firstly, it is clear that there can be no health without social health, just as there can be “no health without mental health”, as Martin Prince et al aptly put it in a 2007 article. Strengthening multiple support resources – for example by supporting existing mechanisms or relationships, or through health interventions – has the potential to promote better mental health and possibly facilitate service uptake among (HIV-positive and other) adolescents. This is not a magic bullet, but it is certainly a potentially key element within more multi-faceted interventions that aim to support young people across different domains.

Secondly, caregivers and other close family members play an important role in adolescents’ lives and health, and interventions need to take this into consideration. We have found that caregivers are often the main providers of emotional and tangible support for adolescents, and higher caregiver support has been linked to better adolescent mental health even among HIV-positive youth, as shown for example in a 2017 study by Shelene Gentz and others. This suggests that boosting the support received by caregivers of adolescents, as well as that directly received by the adolescents themselves, may have cumulative positive effects on adolescent health. It also suggests that it is important for adolescent health interventions to involve primary caregivers or other close adults in the child’s network, and/or work to strengthen child-caregiver interaction.

These may include initiatives such as community based parenting programmes. Several recent evaluations have, in fact, shown these programmes to be effective in reducing abuse and mental health problems among youth, even in low-resourced, HIV-affected African communities. Lastly, more applied research is needed to better understand the connections between the social, mental and physical dimensions of health, and to further develop and test health interventions in this specific adolescent population. We should draw from what we know works and is culturally appropriate and feasible in resource-limited African settings, including some of the initiatives mentioned above.

If we are to gain a better understanding of the needs of adolescents, we will need to make sure we involve adolescents in designing programmes developed for them. To best design and evaluate interventions, we need to be open to bridging academic disciplines and using methodological tools from different areas of study. We will also need to look for ways to increase the participation of key government and NGO stakeholders in initiatives such as those outlined above to ensure their sustainability – as well that of others that emerge from further study. As the UN’s 2015 Population 2030 report puts it:

“Adolescents and youth can be a positive force for development when they are provided the knowledge and opportunities they need to thrive.” Investing in the mental, social and physical health of Africa’s adolescents is essential if we are to provide them with opportunities to thrive and contribute to the African societies and economies of the future.

MARISA CASALE is Extraordinary Senior Researcher with the School of Public Health at the University of the Western Cape, and associate member of the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at Oxford University.

Young politicians aiming high

Bogolo Kenewendo illustration: Valentina Manente, based on Black Panther © Marvel Studios 2018

Youth – people between the ages of 15 and 35, according to the definition used by the African Union’s Youth Charter – make up more than 35% of Africa’s total population. But in elected legislatures in countries such as Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria they remain under-represented.

In Uganda – where five seats are reserved for youth representatives in a parliament that has grown to include 431 members – just under 15% of those elected in 2016 were born in 1980 or later, while less than 1% were aged under 25.

In Ghana, where greater youth representation and participation has been observed in recent elections, change, as in Uganda, appears to be occurring, but slowly, according to a 2016 article in the Daily Monitor, a Ugandan news outlet. The average age of MPs in Ghana’s parliament who were elected in 2016 is 48 years; the median age of the country’s population is 20.4 years, according to a study this year by the Westminster Foundation.

In Nigeria, nearly 70% of the population is estimated to be under the age of 35, according to Nigerian journalist Orji Sunday, writing for online publication African Arguments – yet people in this age category are nowhere to be seen in the corridors of power. Today, the youngest member of the national parliament is 43.

One major barrier to entry facing aspiring young politicians in some countries is legislation that places minimum age requirements for elected office. This is not the case in Uganda, where the age threshold to stand for office is 18 – the same as the voting age. But in Nigeria, you must be 40 to stand for the presidency, 35 to become a state governor and 30 to contest for a seat in the House of Representatives. All of this existing legislation excludes 18-30 year olds, who have the right to vote in elections, but are barred from any participation in seeking election to political office.

In 2016, YIAGA, a civil society advocacy organisation, took on the challenge of reducing this barrier to entry in politics for Nigerian youth. The organisation’s call for greater youth participation manifested in a “Not Too Young To Run’” campaign, which has garnered significant support on social media platforms in the country, and also made some progress in altering the legal environment, which largely excludes young people. The “Not Too Young To Run” Bill proposed that age restrictions for candidates for the presidency and state governorships be dropped to 30 and to 25 for those aiming for the House of Representatives, and was approved by the National Assembly and 35 of Nigeria’s 36 states. On May 31 this year, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the Bill into law, opening up Nigerian politics to a younger cohort of representatives in elections scheduled for February 2019.

A second major obstacle is the costs involved in competing in electoral politics. Studies carried out by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) in Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria have sought to quantify some of these costs. In Ghana in 2016, aspiring members of parliament spent, on average, $85,000 to secure a party’s nomination during the primaries and to contest for the constituency seat. In Uganda, in the same year, parliamentarians quoted outlays ranging from $43,000 to $143,000.

In Nigeria, people seeking to be elected to either house of the bicameral national assembly in 2015 estimated spending a staggeringly high $500,000 to ensure victory. In the words of one aspiring politician: “It got to a point during the campaign that I decided not to keep records any longer so that I didn’t get discouraged.”

“At every stage in our politics a whole lot of money is involved, both at the local and national level,” says Chikodiri Nwangwu, a lecturer in political science at the University of Nigeria. Most young people who would be interested in a political career are recent graduates, and unemployed or underemployed, he says, adding, “(Many) barely get three square meals a day.” The high cost of politics discourages youth from actively taking part in the decision-making process, as well as vying for electoral positions.

Some 65% of respondents to a WFD survey of political aspirants in Ghana agreed that young people are excluded from the outset because they are unable to mobilise the financial resources required. On average, candidates under 30 spent some 48% less than others during the December 2016 election, according to the report.

The challenge of fundraising, particularly for party primaries, which are often highly contentious, appears to be even more acute for young women, who often do not have access to the social networks or personal finance to self-fund campaigns that men do. In more rural areas, social norms are also a constraint.

Nonetheless, young people are beginning to make inroads into formal politics. In 2012 Proscovia Oromait won a by-election to become an MP in Uganda aged just 20, succeeding her father in the role. In 2016, a 23-year-old law student, Francisca Oteng Mensah, made history by becoming Ghana’s youngest elected member of parliament.

However, her father is an international businessman, so she was not financially constrained. In Nigeria, the handful of younger politicians who do get elected into office tend to come from wealthy backgrounds. In Kenya’s 2017 election, John Paul Mwirigi, a 23-year-old student, campaigned on a shoestring budget, using classic door-to-door campaigning. Relying on social rather than financial capital, and combined with growing disillusionment with the political class, he was elected. But these examples are few and far between.

Political apathy among youth across the continent is on the rise, according to a 2016 Afrobarometer study of 16 African countries. It found that just 65% of people between 18 and 35 voted in their respective countries’ last national election, as compared to 79% of citizens older than 35. Young people are even less engaged in civic activities such as attending community meetings or contacting political or community leaders. Such apathy has built up in response to decades of government corruption and failed leadership.

Something similar is clearly also behind young people’s self-perpetuating disillusionment with, and detachment from, electoral politics. Youth might get more engaged if they saw politics as a space that is open to them, but changing that perception requires getting them into political office in the first place. There is also no guarantee that a younger generation of politicians will offer improved accountability and governance when in office.

During a 2016 interview with the Daily Monitor, Nicholas Opiyo, a prominent human rights lawyer in Uganda, stressed the need for better balance, arguing that while it was “good to see more youth elected MPs … experience and knowledge also comes with age”.

It must be said that age is certainly not a quality in short supply when looking at the leadership in Nigeria, Uganda and Ghana. The average age of the president in these three nations is 74, while the median age of their populations ranges between 15.5 years and 20.4 years. This is not to say that only young people can represent youth, or that greater youth participation in politics would necessarily improve civic accountability and government policy in the short term. But it is critical that young people be enabled and encouraged to take a more active interest in politics across the continent. Improving access to the political system, by breaking down legal and financial barriers, would be just one part of that. Doing so would give the voices of the continent’s young people an opportunity to be better heard, and perhaps a chance to start shaping their own futures.

Jamie Hitchen is a researcher at the Africa Research Institute in London. He holds an MA in history from University of Edinburgh and an MSc in African politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He is interested in how informal structures leverage political power and has worked on these themes in Uganda, Ghana and Sierra Leone. He has written for the Daily Maverick, World Politics Review and Africa is a Country.