Obama Targets Africa’s Youth as Key to Continent’s Future

US President Barack Obama speaks at a reception celebrating the signing into law of the African Growth and Opportunity Act in the East Room of the White House in Washington on July 22, 2015.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama arrives in Kenya Friday to promote the economic prospects of Africa, a continent approaching a tipping point of prosperity or instability.

Underlying sub-Saharan Africa’s five percent growth rate is a melange of weak governments, entrenched corruption and threats from militant groups such as Boko Haram. That combination has made the region a priority for U.S. intelligence agencies.

A wild card for the region’s future -- and one that will be part of Obama’s focus over a five-day visit -- is that 43 percent of the population is under age 15.

Those young people can evolve into a workforce that helps drive Africa’s growth or turn into dissatisfied and disaffected potential recruits for extremists as they have in parts of North Africa and the Middle East.

The youth bubble can be seen as “a demographic dividend or as a demographic bomb,” said Amadou Sy, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a policy research group in Washington.

In Nairobi and later in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Obama will repeat the message he delivered at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit last August in Washington: Africa’s leaders must answer their young people’s aspirations and expand their economies to make that possible.

‘Extraordinary’ Opportunities

Despite its challenges, Africa “has the potential to be the next center of global economic growth,” Obama said Wednesday before signing a renewal of the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives trade preferences to countries that move toward more free-market economies. “The opportunities are extraordinary.”

Sy said the first line of defense is expanding trading and building infrastructure.

“We really should redouble our efforts to have African countries experience double-digit growth,” Sy said. “If not, we will have problems.”

Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, said Wednesday that U.S. wants to send a strong signal “that we’re serious about expanding and sustaining U.S.-Africa trade, including by helping to create new customers for U.S. businesses overseas.”

U.S. Trade

The continent isn’t a major U.S. trading partner, with $25.5 billion in exports to sub-Saharan Africa last year accounting for only 1.6 percent of total U.S. exports, according to census figures.

Still, some major U.S. companies see potential. General Electric Co. is seeking to more than double revenue from Africa to as much as $10 billion over the next five years as it targets power, health and locomotive opportunities in countries including Nigeria and Ethiopia.

Jeff Immelt, GE’s chairman and chief executive officer, announced plans ahead of last year’s U.S.-Africa summit to invest $2 billion in the region by 2018 and double the company’s workforce on the continent.

“From an economic point of view, Kenya and its neighbors are among the fastest-integrating regions in terms of infrastructure and lowering trade barriers,” creating a large marketplace, said Peter Pham, director of the Africa Program at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group.

This trip is Obama’s fourth to the continent, the most by a sitting president and the first to Kenya, the homeland of his father, and Ethiopia.

He will focus on themes meant to address the economic and security challenges Africa faces.

Bolstering Democracy

One is bolstering democracy, echoing a 2009 speech in Ghana where Obama said, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

Obama also plans to discuss political restrictions, human rights, the rule of law and transparency as critical components for fostering economic growth.

Ethiopia is using an antiterrorism law to restrict speech, limit civil society groups and political opposition, and jail students and bloggers. Kenya’s government is pushing legislation to limit human rights groups and the media.

Security and countering extremist groups also is on Obama’s agenda. Kenya has been beset by al-Shabaab militants based in Somalia. The al-Qaeda-linked group has claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed at least 500 people there in the last two-and-a-half years, undermining the country’s reputation as a stable investment destination.

Comprehensive Approach

Aides said Obama will emphasize that a military response alone won’t work and that the government must take a comprehensive approach in responding to the grievances of citizens if it’s to keep them out of the grip of extremists.

Obama’s attendance at the first African-hosted Global Entrepreneurship Summit on Saturday in Nairobi will integrate the U.S. message on development, the importance of promoting trade and investment and how domestic investment can grow jobs.

The summit “brings together a lot of the economic development issues the administration’s been focused on,” said Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of State for African affairs.

The United Nations estimates that by 2055, Africa’s population of 15- to 24-year-olds will more than double from current levels as part of a worldwide youth bulge. Keeping pace will require the creation of 500 million jobs in the next five years, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, the UN says.

Without those jobs, the continent’s young people won’t have a crucial force for stability: hope.

“Unless you do something about this youth demographic, it’s going to be very difficult to see an Africa that is secure and stable,” said Monde Muyangwa, director of the Africa program at the Wilson Center in Washington. “Unless people have hope, I don’t see how that happens.”

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