Building Capacity for a New Generation: The Case for Youth Leadership in Africa

As a new generation of African leaders emerges, and the continent moves well into the 21st Century, the full spectrum of social, political, and economic issues require invigorated ways of thinking about leadership and youth in Africa. Today’s youth are being looked upon to play a crucial and active role in building African communities, promoting accountability, and developing new visions - within African countries specifically, but also across the continent more generally. In so doing, building the capacity for this generation is perhaps one of the greatest challenges, but also one of the most important. Youth across sectors - whether government, civil society, or business - will shape the continent’s future.

A Wider Vision

With the theme, “Building Capacity for a New Generation: The Case for Youth Leadership in Africa”, the 2012 Oxford University Pan-Africa Conference is poised to be the largest gathering of African students in the United Kingdom and will highlight the importance of nurturing a new type of African youth leadership in response to the rapidly evolving challenges of this century. No simple solutions exist, and the conference is set to tackle a number of hotly debated issues. Key themes include: challenges and opportunities for the next generation of African leaders, investing in youth as an economic strategy, youth and politics on the continent, Africa in a globalized world, and the future of Sino-African relations.

The conference is part of a wider vision, “the Pan-Africa Project”, which seeks to provide an annual platform for all African students in the UK to reflect on mutual challenges and identify ways of promoting quality leadership and sustainable development in Africa. Our 2011 conference, ‘Pan-Africanism for a New Generation’, brought together scholars, activists and leaders, to interrogate the meaning of Pan-Africanism in the 21st century. The concept of Pan-Africanism is largely associated with independence struggles, having served as a unifying force against colonialism and as an important part of the United States civil rights movement. In the post-colonial period, Pan-Africanism has inspired a series of principles and themes guiding several policies and programmes across the continent that seek to provide an agenda in dealing with the particular challenges of the 21st century, such as the adverse impact of globalization, security, and climate change.

Challenges, Opportunities, and Youth in Africa

Dramatic changes have occurred across the African continent over the last two decades, yet the 21st Century has brought increasing acknowledgement of the multidimensional nature of both the problems faced, and solutions available, to African leaders. While the next generation of leaders will face major challenges, significant opportunities avail themselves to be harnessed in supporting renewed visions for Africa. Recognising these opportunities and the crucial role that leadership from within Africa is to play in taking hold of these opportunities is vital if new leaders are to be actively involved in shaping the continent’s future.

A significant part of fostering the required leadership is coming to terms with the multidimensional processes of investing in youth as an economic strategy. Investing in youth may be more than just building leadership, but also finding constructive ways of facilitating youth contributions to Africa’s present and future. Nowhere is this clearer than youth involvement in politics. Whilst youth in Africa have often tended to be characterised as a negative force in politics, across the continent they continue to play a crucial role both inside and outside formal politics. Young leaders and organisations of young people are promoting accountability, supporting better governance, and aiding delivery across varying contexts. Understanding how youth can affect the political process for positive ends, how young people have already been creating change, and how positive involvement in politics can be supported is becoming increasingly important.

Africa, Globalisation, and Partnership

The awareness of Africa as part of an increasingly interconnected world must come into any debate about African leadership in the 21st Century. The question of extending youth leadership beyond country and continent borders is the first crucial issue that needs to be addressed with regard to globalization processes. Finding an answer, however, has proved elusive, with particularly divergent opinions on Africa’s place within a globalized world. While critics have seen these processes as harmful to African countries, advocates see the potential for processes of globalization to bring much benefit to the continent.

The role of youth leadership is of particular importance if processes of increasing interconnectedness between African countries and those beyond Africa are to be harnessed for the good of the continent. A major driver of Africa’s prosperity will be the emergence of pan-African enterprises of scale. Individually, most African economies are small and cannot sustain the large-scale enterprises that will enable massive job creation and lift Africa out of poverty. Such large-scale enterprises can only be built by a generation of African business leaders who have relationships across the continent.

The second issue is that of the future of Sino-African relations. The relationship between China and the African continent has, like globalization more broadly, been subject to much praise as well as criticism. The idea of partnership is seen by many as holding particular importance. The way in which business relations can be promoted in this regard is increasingly vital to the promotion of African economic and political agency. Perhaps one of the most important questions as Sino-African relations develop is how partnerships can be built between Chinese and African business that are equitable and sustainable, and where the outcomes of those partnerships are mutually beneficial, dynamic, and constantly evolving.


Organized by the Oxford University Africa Society, the 2012 conference will bring together hundreds of young and dynamic academics, scholars, entrepreneurs, activists, and politicians from around the world to unpack, discuss, and debate these challenging and exciting issues. The conference will provide opportunity to facilitate discussions and exchange ideas among young Africans who are currently leading efforts on women empowerment, youth development, and capacity building across the continent.

We believe in no better time than now, and no better place than the University of Oxford to bring today's leaders together with tomorrow’s leaders and to engage in this crucial debate.

Note: Think Africa Press published this as an article 5 April 2012.

About the Authors

Africa Society PresidentIdris Bello is the President of the Oxford University Africa Society and a global Weidenfeld Scholar in Global Health at University of Oxford. He also serves as a Program Director at Wennovation Hub, a hub for start-up business development located in Ikeja, Lagos with a focus on synthesising high impact start-up growth, facilitation and development in West Africa. He has recently been named 2012 Dell Global Innovation Ambassador for his role in supporting social innovation on university campuses.

Dustin Kramer is a member of the Oxford Pan-Africa Conference Committee.