The ticking time bomb of youth unemployment in Africa

At the inauguration of Zambia’s second president in November 1991, Frederick Chiluba remarked: “The Zambia we inherit is destitute – ravaged by the excesses, ineptitude and straight corruption of a party and a people who have been in power for too long. When our first president stood up to address you twenty-seven years ago, he was addressing a country full of hope and glory. A country fresh with the power of the youth and a full and rich dowry. Now the coffers are empty. The people are poor, the misery endless.”

Zambia like most African nations after independence shared the same unfortunate narrative; too much potential that was ransacked by the founding fathers who promised to deliver the African dream when the mantle of leadership was handed over to them by the former colonialists.

From 1957 when Ghana became the first African nation to gain self-rule, the potential of the continent was undoubtedly great. Other African nations followed suit with a new wave of African pride that had never been seen before. From Cairo to Lusaka, Windhoek to Rabat, Conakry to Addis Ababa; the potential of Africa was unmatched. A youthful productive population, mineral resources, fertile lands, bubbling patriotism, agriculture among other critical advantages that the continent enjoyed. Africans could finally decide their own destinies. After all, they had been turned into slaves in their own countries. Their land had been taken away from them and to add salt to injury they were jailed, exiled and their culture swallowed up. Their minerals were extracted and the proceeds were taken abroad as minimal developments were done in Africa.

With the departure of the white man, Africans finally got a chance to chart their own path albeit slightly directed by the winds of neo-colonialism. The founding fathers promised to change the narrative of the continent as soon as possible.

However, as the hope of a new dawn was struggling to rise, it was immediately snuffed out and replaced with pain. All that potential was squandered with greed from the founding fathers. The big men of Africa turned into dictators. Patronage took the central stage over professionalism. Negative ethnicity and the culture of looting was permanently planted in the hearts of each new nation. Agricultural produce plummeted. Life expectancy took a nose dive, African resources did not benefit the new nations much, war erupted, HIV soon followed, hunger and famines were now common occurrences in Africa, pain and destruction became synonymous with Africa. The bright light of optimism that once shone brightly in Africa was replaced with a dark cloud of desolation.

Over 50 years after independence, the continent has made a tremendous effort. We have seen nations rising from the abyss of ruin and destruction into a glorious day. Progressive constitutions have been passed. Institutions have taken root. Child mortality rate is reducing. Literacy levels are skyrocketing.  Six of the world’s ten fastest-growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. With almost 200 million people aged between 15 and 24, Africa has the youngest population in the world. Africa is rising.

But the Achilles heels that have disturbed the continent is how to convert it’s vast potential to take over the global stage. Apart from natural resources, human resource, especially within the productive age, should be tapped to achieve accelerated growth.


When African leaders met in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia in 2009, the agenda was to understand and possibly diffuse youth unemployment ‘time bomb.’ Collectively, they agreed that 2009–2018 was going to be the “African Youth Decade.” It’s slightly 2 years before the “Youth Decade” ends but the statistics are still very grim.

According to African Economic Outlook, youth unemployment in sub- Saharan Africa is estimated to be over 20 per cent. It is estimated that about 133 million young people (more than 50 percent of the youth population) in Africa are illiterate. Many young people have little or no skills and are therefore largely excluded from productive economic and social life. Those that have some education often exhibit skills irrelevant to current demand in the labour market, in a situation where educational and skill requirements are increasing, resulting in millions of unemployed and underemployed youth.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that between 2000 and 2008 Africa created 73 million jobs, but only 16 million for young people aged between 15 and 24. As a result, many young Africans find themselves unemployed or, more frequently, underemployed in informal jobs with low productivity and pay. Of Africa’s unemployed, 60% are young people and youth unemployment rates are double those of adult unemployment in most African countries. The problem is particularly acute in middle-income countries (MICs). In 2009 in North Africa youth unemployment was 23.4%, and the ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment rates was estimated at 3.8. In South Africa, youth unemployment was 48% and the ratio of youth-to-adult unemployment rates was estimated at 2.5. Among the employed young, the proportion of work in informality is significantly higher than that of adults.

According to International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF), Organisation for Economic Co-operation, Development (OECD) Development and Co-operation Directorate and USAID, Youth unemployment is a critical issue in fragile states because grievances among the young are most likely to be expressed violently, if non-violent political channels are not adequate or responsive and these grievances revolve around unemployment, involving considerations of both income and social cohesion.

One in two young people who join a rebel movement cites unemployment as the main reason for doing so (World Bank, 2011b). In Liberia, which has suffered two civil wars since 1989, driven by a combustible mix of ethnic divisions, predatory elites, corruption and competition for the profits from natural resources, today it is unemployment that is seen as a major risk to stability (International Crisis Group, 2011). Conflict in one country shaves an estimated 0.5 percentage points off the annual rate of growth in a neighboring country (Collier et al., 2003).

A challenge is being thrown to both leaders and the young in Africa, are we going to sit back or look for innovative ways to change our continent?

We must not let the words of the late Hastings Kamuzu Banda  of Malawi to be a reality in our time when he said,the trouble with Africa is that too many ignorant people do not know anything about history. And if they do know anything, they do not know how to interpret and apply it. That’s why Africa is a mess. That is the tragedy of Africa: too many ignorant people are in a position of power and responsibility.”

Dannish Odongo works for Capital FM as a digital media strategist. He runs a blog on leadership and faith

Follow him @Dannishodongo

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