NEW SEAT: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, Sadc's new chairman, speaks at the Sadc summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on Sunday. Picture: EPA/SIYABULELA DUDA
NEW SEAT: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaks at a Sadc summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, last year. Picture: EPA/SIYABULELA DUDA

IN AFRICA, there is a demographic disconnect between leaders and those they lead. While the average population age of Africa is younger than 30, their leaders are likely to be twice that age and, in many cases, far older. This is indicative of a vast dichotomy between disengaged governments and their young and increasingly demanding populations.

The novelty of the political tsunami that rocked North Africa in 2011 has shifted the spotlight firmly onto the rest of the continent, forcing repressive and insensitive regimes to sit up and take notice. At the heart of the "Arab Spring" was a disgruntled youth seeking democratic representation and economic participation. As a result, the political landscape of most of North Africa changed, which was a wake-up call to other long-serving leaders that Africa’s ruling class was under siege. Now, unless the gap between the aspirations of the governed and those who govern is bridged, underlying frustrations threaten to spill over into economic and political strife.

In 2012, Todd Moss and Stephanie Majerowicz at the Centre for Global Development published The Generation Chasm, which studied the difference between the average ages of the citizens of countries and those of their leaders — and discovered that Africa had by far the largest gap, an incredible 43.3 years (Europe and North America, by contrast, have only 16.2 years between the ages of leaders and voters). This led them to speculate whether the generation gap was a factor in the spread of the Arab Spring unrest — and whether it might provoke further sudden regime changes.

Of the world’s 20 longest-serving leaders who are still in power, Africa boasts 10. The average age of the African president is 70. Among these are Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (72), Paul Biya of Cameroon (81), Jose Eduardo do Santos of Angola (72), Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (90), Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (70) and Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo (71). In addition, it is highly likely that the leaders of Togo, Benin, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo will try to get rid of term limits within the next two years. There are very few African leaders younger than 65, and even fewer younger than 60, yet, according to the Population Reference Bureau, 41% of Africa’s 1-billion citizens are under the age of 15. There are almost as many youths on the continent as the combined population of Canada, the US and Mexico. In all, 70% of the population is younger than 30.

Given the huge generation gap, it is important to ask whether the present crop of ageing African leaders is adequately prepared to cope with the fast-evolving demands of Africa’s growing young population and emerging middle class. Most of these leaders were born before the start of the Second World War, decades before the end of colonialism and generations before the emergence of televisions, iPads and smartphones. In Africa today, internet connections, unemployment and anger at corruption and cronyism are all rising. The pervasive gerontocracy, which is rooted in colonial experiences and loyalties, military backgrounds and a distrust of technology, potentially poses a significant threat to the stability of the continent — as seen in violent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Burkina Faso. The common feature in all of these revolts was a united opposition against complacent, long-serving leaders and governments alienated from their citizens and unresponsive to their needs. The rapid spread of protests and rising public anger ultimately resulted in regime change in all three countries.

The above factors pose a broader challenge to how Africa reconciles these fundamental tensions. Mohammed Bouazizi, aged 26, who sparked the revolution in Tunisia, represented Africa’s emerging youth class, an impatient demographic eager to upend the status quo. On the other end of the spectrum, deposed dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, aged 76, represented a breed of elder statesmen — disconnected from the population’s needs.

While many have been very successful at winning political independence from colonial powers, the context and challenges demand more than historical accomplishments if Africa is to emerge as a global force. For Africa to continue to grow sustainably and be globally competitive, it is critical to blend the leadership structures in government, and ensure that the leadership baton is passed from the elder statesmen, many of whom are out of touch with the situations in their countries, to promising youth leaders, who can learn from the experiences and mistakes of the elders. How successfully Africa capitalises on its youthful population may well be determined by how quickly this tension is settled and what leadership ultimately emerges.

By 2030, Africa will have the youngest population on earth. Young people are becoming the demographic majority. Although they are receiving a better education than previous generations, they have fewer jobs and are feeling increasingly disconnected from the political process, are devoid of economic prospects and are no longer prepared to sit idly by while their governments continue to underperform.

The emergence of citizen movements such as Y’en a Marre and Le Balai Citoyen in West Africa illustrates this trend. Y’en a Marre (Fed Up) was a group of Senegalese rappers and journalists created in January 2011 to protest against ineffective government and encourage the youth to register and vote. They are widely credited with mobilising Senegal’s youth vote and ousting octogenarian president Abdoulaye Wade in 2012. Similarly, in Burkina Faso, Le Balai Citoyen — the Civic Broom movement — was a political grassroots movement of the youth, which played an instrumental role in the abrupt removal of president Blaise Compaoré.

The combination of easy access to social media, the proliferation of mobile phones and youth anger should make African autocrats increasingly uncomfortable. With increased demands for accountability, most despotic African leaders view these trends as a threat to their style of governance as it exposes the fundamental tension between the open culture of millennials and the buttoned-up culture of government.

Many leaders on the continent have clung to power by a combined force of political police and a divisive ideology that aligns a section of society with the oppressors (primarily because of a nurtured fear and distrust of others either on an ethnic, religious or regional basis). And, even though they regularly berate their colonial inheritance, Africa’s leaders have shrewdly worked their people’s ethnic, racial and linguistic divisions in their own favour. They have also kept their armies on a tight leash. In many cases, including Rwanda, Uganda, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, these armies brought them to power in the first place. But, while in the past ordinary citizens did not have a political voice, protest movements have now found their roots in economic and social discontent, in a youth frustrated by poverty, a dearth of economic opportunities, social restrictions and a lack of political accountability.

This huge age difference is reflected in the different experiences of the government and those governed. Africa’s old guard of leaders need to step up efforts to meet the needs of their young people, who are demanding economic opportunities, quality education and health and basic services, the rule of law and human rights, or they will face the threat of a messy and disorderly end to their regime.

Gopaldas is head of country risk at Rand Merchant Bank.