A Renaissance for Ethiopia’s Youth

eth youth demoFor the past one-half decade, Ethiopia has been awash with talk of renaissance. There has been a lot of windbagging about a “Renaissance Dam” over the Blue Nile. Our ears nearly fell off listening to the endless gab about an “economic renaissance” with “11 percent” plus annual growth. There has also been much talk of a political and social renaissance complete with slogans of “ethnic federalism”, multiculturalism, pluralism and other “isms” (excluding neoliberalism). Of course, all of it is talk! That is exactly what I am talking about. How come there is no talk about a renaissance for Ethiopia’s youth?

The term “renaissance” is generally used to signify rebirth and revival in culture and learning. Immediately following the Middle Ages (“Dark Ages”), Europeans had a “Renaissance” which led to the flourishing of art, science and astronomy and expansion of global trade and exploration. Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop minted the concept of “African Renaissance” in 1946 to advocate the cultural, scientific, economic, and political renewal of the continent. It later evolved to become a philosophical and political movement for the establishment of democratic societies free of strife, corruption and poverty on the continent. Aparently, the idea of “Ethiopian Renaissance” is the figment of the late dictator in Ethiopia.

It seems to me that if Ethiopia is to have a “renaissance”, a “rebirth” or “revival” of any kind, it could only come through the blood, sweat and tears of her young people, and not from fables invented by despots and their mouthpieces. I believe young Ethiopian entrepreneurs are the tip of the spear in leading the country into an economic renaissance. Young Ethiopians scholars should lead the forces of intellectual transformation. Young Ethiopian scientist and engineers should lead the country into self-sufficiency and global competitiveness. Young Ethiopian lawyers should carry the sword of justice. Young Ethiopian leaders must be the dynamic agents of social and political change and lead Ethiopia into a bold and brave 21st Century.

Unfortunately, the older generation — in or out of power, inside or outside of the country — do not want to talk about Ethiopian youth, let alone an Ethiopian Youth Renaissance. Again, I am just talking about an Ethiopian youth renaissance, not doing anything to make the renaissance happen. (It is said that “action speaks louder than words”; but when everyone is silent, silence itself becomes action and speaks louder than words.)

I must confess that there are some in the older generation who disapprove and are somewhat offended by my irrevocable commitment to Ethiopia’s youth. I have heard it said that in my complete and shameless partisanship in favor of Ethiopian youth (“Ethiopian Cheetahs and Hippos”), I have invented a new and dangerous division in society between the young and old in a land already fractured and fragmented by ethnic, religious and regional divisions. “Methinks they doth protest too much”, to invoke Shakespeare.

To me youth is a state of mind, not necessarily chronological age. As Robert Kennedy told South African students in 1966, youth is “a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.” Not long ago,  I pleaded for a renaissance of the older generation by restoring faith with the younger generation. “We must unlearn to hate each other because we belong to different ethnic groups or worship the same God with different names. To restore faith with ourselves, we must be willing to step out of our comfort zones, comfort groups, comfort communities and comfort ethnicities and muster the courage to say and do things we know are right.” (I guess my generation is hard of hearing.)

So much for a renaissance of my generation. Back to talking about a renaissance for Ethiopia’s youth. Nobody is talking about it.  That does not just cause me concern, it alarms me (or as young people might say, “it freaks me out”). Why aren’t Ethiopia’s youth front and center in public policy-making, political debate and discourse? Why aren’t the regime, the opposition and the Ethiopian Diaspora taking youth issues as the most urgent and critical facing the country?

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa with an estimated population approaching 90 million. It is reported that over one-half of Ethiopia’s population is between the ages of 15-24 years. An estimated 70 percent of the population is under 40 years old. Ethiopia’s youth suffer from all sorts of deprivations and social maladies. Youth unemployment continues to grow as youth landlessness in rural areas    has opened the floodgates to increasing in-migration to urban areas. According to a 2012 USAID study, “Ethiopia has one of the highest urban youth unemployment rates at 50 percent and there is a high rate of youth under­employment in rural areas, where nearly 85 percent of the population resides.”  Another 2012 study of youth unemployment by the International Growth Center reported that the “current 5 year [Ethiopian] development plan 2010/11-2014/5, the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), does not directly address the issue of youth unemployment, but rather implicitly through improved performance of the various sectors in the economy.” That study found “in 2011, 38 percent of youth were employed in the informal sector” which “often provides low quality, low paying jobs.”

The underemployment rate among the youth is extremely high; “approximately 50 percent of youth reported being available and willing to work more hours.” There is a substantial segment of the youth population that is not only unemployed but also unemployable because they lack basic skills. Youth access to public sector jobs requiring training depends not so much on merit or competition but connections and party membership. Without job or educational opportunities in the urban areas, large numbers of youth are rendered jobless, homeless, helpless and hopeless.

Problems faced by Ethiopia’s youth cover the gamut of social maladies. According to the humanitarian agency GOAL, there are 150,000 children living on the streets, some  60,000 of them in the capital. The average age at which children first find themselves homeless is between the age of 10 and 11 years. Health risks for youth from HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are on the increase. Large numbers of young people who lack opportunities are involved in drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution and other criminal activities. The school dropout rate is unacceptably high, and those who finish high school have diminished opportunities for higher education.

In my view, the problem of 21st Century Ethiopia is quintessentially the problem of Ethiopian youth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in less than 40 years, Ethiopia’s population will more than triple to 278 million, placing that country in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. Ethiopia’s population growth has been spiraling upwards for decades. In 1967, the population was 23.5 million. It increased to 51 million in 1990 and by 2003, it had reached 68 million. In 2008, that number increased to 80 million. Since 1995, the average annual rate of population growth has remained at over 3 percent. The catastrophic events that could take place in Ethiopia in just four decades is not hard to imagine.

In 2004, the ruling regime in Ethiopia issued its “National Youth Policy” and asserted that “44% of the population is below the absolute poverty line. Under this situation of poverty, the youth is the hardest hit segment of society… The fact that the majority of the unemployed youth constitute females indicates the magnitude to which young women are the main victims of the problem.”

Taken as a whole, the National Youth Policy is nothing more than a blueprint for the recruitment of youth to become supporters of the regime and the ruling party. The policy directs that the “Government shall have the responsibility to direct, coordinate, integrate and build the capacity for the implementation of this policy.” Yet, as the International Growth Center study showed, the “current 5 year [Ethiopian] development plan 2010/11-2014/5, the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), does not directly address the issue of youth unemployment.”

Though there has been little talk about a youth reneaissance in Ethiopia, President Barack Obama has been talking about a renaissance of sorts for Africa’s youth. During his recent visit to Africa, he told students at  Cape Town University, “You get to decide where the future lies.  Think about it — over 60 percent of Africans are under 35 years old.  So demographics means young people are going to be determining the fate of this continent and this country.  You’ve got time and numbers on your side, and you’ll be making decisions long after politicians like me have left the scene.” Obama promised to “launch a new program that’s going to give thousands of promising young Africans opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills at some of our best colleges and universities.”

President Obama has been talking about empowering African youth for a while. In August 2010, he talked about launching “the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) as a signature initiative that supports young African leaders as they work to spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across the continent.” In June 2013, he talked about “launching a new program” called the “Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders” which is “going to give thousands of promising young Africans the opportunity to come to the United States and develop skills at some of our best colleges and universities.”

Presidential talk has not been followed by much presidential action. In June 2012, some “60 young African leaders” participated in “the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership with Young African Leaders” for a “three-week professional development program”. To support YALI and the “empowerment of young African leaders” and provide them “significant and ongoing professional training, access to mentorship, and networking opportunities in Africa”, USAID has awarded two grants totaling $1.3 million. A lot of nice talk and promises for African young people; but promises and talk are more convincing when one puts money where one’s mouth is. Since YALI, there has been more talk than money.

But even in the Obama narrative of Africa’s youth, there is an important side to the African youth story that is overlooked and ignored. President Obama in Cape Town said, “I’ve traveled to Africa on this trip because my bet is on the young people who are the heartbeat of Africa’s story.  I’m betting on all of you.” Which segment of the African youth is he betting on? The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders promises to “give thousands of promising young Africans” the “opportunity to come to the United States and develop their skills.” What about the millions of not-so-promising African youths who waste away in the urban areas without educational and employment opportunities? What about those African youths mired in rural poverty unable to get even the most basic educational services? What about those young Africans who have acquired college education but are unable to find employment because they are not connected to the ruling parties in Africa?

All I am saying is that we need to be laser-focused on Ethiopia’s youth and seek ways of improving their condition. Headshaking, teeth gnashing, fist raising, bellyaching and finger pointing is simply not enough. It is time for all to join hands in the cause of Ethiopia’s youth. We need to have serious talk, better yet, serious debate about the problems of youth in Ethiopia and what can be done to alleviate them. We need todirectly engage the “promising” and not-so-promising youth in Ethiopia and work collaboratively with them in finding solution to the myriad problems they face. An old Ethiopian adage says, “The youth are today’s flowers and tomorrow’s seeds.” When the vast majority of the Ethiopian flowers are wilting on the stem, there can be no seeds for the future, for change, for hope, for peace, for freedom, for democracy, for reconciliation, for…

Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.

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