You wouldn’t think it looking up at the endless commercials on CNN – Malawi as a new tourist destination, Uganda as a hot spot for business expansion and Nigeria with its open arms for investment. You won’t feel it when you read about The Economist’s successful conferences in Lagos, the Forbes Africa events in South Africa, or CNBC’s bold new profiles on businesses in Nairobi, but there are many reasons for young Africans, indeed Africans of any age, not to have faith in their country and continent.
Democracy might be crawling along nations, but its values, as critics in Kigali will tell you, or newspaper editors in Egypt might share, have not taken root. Investment and earnings might be increasing, but so too is income disparity. Citizens continue to see and hear of increases in trade and GDP, but there is still dissatisfaction, even despair – with many African’s asking why haven’t our lives changed?
Indeed, as ‘Africa rising’ becomes a cliché, it can obscure a certain reality – that might be changing ahead of us, but in our midst and to paraphrase a popular US election gaffe, the fundamentals of our despair remain strong.
So what is driving the hope, the faith and this almost maniacal belief in Africa’s future – especially by the Y! generation? What pushes one of the nominees of this year’s The Future Awards Africa, Bilikisu Abiola, who came back armed with a certificate from MIT, literally to rubbish – going around poor communities in Lagos and helping them turn their waste to wealth through her company WeCyclers?
She is one of the many young Nigerians in their twenties and thirties who moved away from Nigeria in the late 1990s and 2000s after secondary school to study who have started to move back after realising the opportunities in Nigeria, enthusiastically embracing the one year of compulsory national services and staying on to build businesses and drive change in the country.
What drives this faith? I asked one such person, a job candidate for an opening at EnoughisEnough (EiE) Nigeria two weeks ago.
We founded EiE in 2010, when Nigeria’s now late president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was ill and missing for three months, and there was carnage in one of Nigeria’s states, Jos. As an entrepreneur, activism was an unfamiliar concept at first but I felt this was a generation that deserved answers. We gathered thousands of young people, including singers, actors, professionals and business people and marched to the gates of our National Assembly to demand the constitution be obeyed.
EiE has become perhaps the most influential voice for young Nigerians in governance, leading the elections RSVP (Resgister.Select.Vote.Protect), building a mobile election monitoring app, leading the historic #OccupyNigeria protests, and the recent #OurNationalAssembly campaign to drive down the cost of governance. But how much has really changed in the three years since I called friends, associates and strangers together to form that organization? Are we satisfied with the present crop of leaders? Have the much-talked-about masses found the hope that comes from three square meals? With insecurity yet on the rise, airplanes still dropping from the skies, jobs still the most important problem, and electricity more absent than not, what is there here to have hope in, to return to?
I asked the job candidate who left the comfort of a job in San Francisco to come and be part of the movement. Was she happy taking a pay cut, to contend with the bad roads, a decreased life expectancy? The simplicity of her answer was both familiar and striking – she feels it in her bones, her country is on the cusp of change.
It is of course human nature to hope, and that sense, more than anything else is responsible for the number of young Nigerians who continue to return home. But it is not a fool’s hope.
Despite the immediate challenges, the country has changed. The opportunities have expanded from e-commerce to television, and the space has opened for creativity and community building. Even the great global powerhouses like Microsoft have tapped into this groundswell of opportunities, working with our firm on an employability portal – aiki.ng (Aiki being the Hausa word for ‘work’) to connect young Nigerians across the country with the myriad of opportunities that now exist.
The Nigeria we have today, whatever else is said, is fundamentally more progressive and more hopeful than the Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo took over from the military in 1999.
So there is hope. It is a hope that looks beyond the present, hope that looks beyond the disappointment, into the possibilities, hope that sees beyond the here and now and that connects with a reality that things are changing if we just keep moving, one foot in front of the other.
I saw this first hand as YNaija.com, the definitive internet newspaper for young Nigerians, launched a campaign to define the search for Nigeria’s next youth minister – hosting a special edition of our TV show, driving a poll across social media, publishing a series tracking developments, giving the youth a voice on who they think should lead their charge. The audience reacted with cynical tweets, but still thousands got involved. It’s perhaps the most positive form of a generational multi-personality disorder.
We have our feet firmly on the ground, but we have our eyes rooted on the skies. We know they are problems, but we also know there are solutions. Africa’s urgent imperative is to ensure that its young people don’t lose faith – a resource more crucial than any amount of oil or diamonds on the continent.
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December 17, 2014 //
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