How long before the world’s youngest continent revolts?
Protestors during Kenya's rerun election. Young Africans know they are getting a raw deal. They are cynical about politics and angry. Credit: Andrew Renneisen / Getty   

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Makoko, a neighbourhood in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, is a place that has become famous for its misery. It is a sort of floating slum underneath the Third Mainland Bridge, a 12km stretch of concrete that connects Lagos’s islands to the rest of the city.

Once a fishing village, over the years, thousands of shacks have been built in Makoko on land reclaimed from the bay by filling it with rubbish. People live in them, crowded six to a room. There is no running water, so hundreds of people make a living hauling in plastic containers filled from boreholes on the mainland. Children are bathed outside in buckets. Electricity is provided by generators, which gives the air the tinny taste of diesel. The alleyways reek of human shit.

In Lagos, people make their homes where they can: beneath underpasses; in derelict buildings; anywhere without the thuggish security guards the rich hire to keep them out

The Lagos State government has been trying to get rid of Makoko for years. They send in bulldozers to tear down the shacks and clear the land for developers. But it never stays cleared for long. The slum grows out into the bay, new shacks built with wood are floated onto the water. People keep coming, drawn to the urban jungle by the hope – however slim – of making it big.

Nobody knows how many people live there, but it could be as many as 250,000. Sixty years ago, that was the entire population of Lagos. Now it’s a sprawling, filthy, unnavigable megacity of perhaps 17 million. People overwhelm its every space. They make their homes where they can: beneath underpasses; in derelict buildings; anywhere without the thuggish security guards the rich hire to keep them out.

Makoko in Lagos, Nigeria, rests in structures constructed on stilts above Lagos Lagoon. Credit: Hannibal/dpa

Africa is the world’s youngest continent. Between the Sahara and South Africa, in most countries, a majority of the population are children. In only a few countries is the median age higher than 20. This is not because people die young –for the most part, they don’t any more. It is the result of an enormous population boom.

In 1960, the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa was around 230 million people. Today, it is roughly 1 billion. According to the United Nations, by the middle of this century, it could well reach 2 billion. In 50 years or so, more than half of the world’s entire population growth will be in Africa. Two fifths of the world’s population will live on the continent. A couple of generations ago, sub-Saharan Africa had no cities with populations bigger than 1 million people. Today it has dozens.

In 1960, the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa was around 230 million people. Today, it is roughly 1 billion

Obviously population projections are just that: projections. But if they are even halfway right, then surely the the 22nd century will be Africa’s. Nowhere else on the planet is so young or so alive. Not a single European Union country has a fertility rate that is higher than the replacement rate; of the rich world club, the OECD, only three countries, Israel, Turkey and Mexico do.

In the West, our countries continue to grow because life expectancy is going up, and thanks to immigration. Eventually, since we all must die, they will start shrinking. By the end of the century, African babies will be a majority of those born. Africa could even be the only continent with a growing population.

Young Africans know that they are getting a raw deal. They are cynical about politics and angry

\So what does this mean? The more optimistic business people I meet at conferences like to talk happily of a ‘demographic dividend’ that will make them lots of money. Lots of Africans means a growing market after all; Africa will have something the rest of the world will lack: youth. Well, perhaps. But the trouble is that Africa is not getting richer – at least not fast. Just 10% of the world’s population now lives below the World Bank’s poverty line of $1.90, down from 35% in 1990. But Africa is the exception. Over that same period, the number of extremely poor on the continent went up by almost 50million.

So what we have is a huge, poor, young population. And they are not the fly-bitten, ignorant victims of famine we in the West grew up seeing on our televisions. They are urbanised, increasingly speak English and French, addicted to their mobile phones. And they are ambitious.

I met one Nigerian in Lagos who earned perhaps $10 a day running a streetside photocopier stall and he spent half of that on a night class in economics. In Kenyan slums, people ask me for my opinion on how Brexit is going. On a ferry on Lake Tanganyika, 1,000km from the nearest international airport, a young ginger (the root) trader asked me if I could help him get business books so that he could learn to be a tycoon.

But if it has no means of being realised, is this ambition really a boon? Young Africans know that they are getting a raw deal. They are cynical about politics and angry.

Western governments fear that this huge, poor, continent is a bomb waiting to explode underneath Europe. Thousands, of frustrated young men are already making the journey westwards – in rickety boats from Libya. But what if millions did?

In the 1990s and early 2000s, politicians talked about Arica in patronising terms, fueled by a vague post-colonial guilt. “Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world”, said Tony Blair in 2004. Today, European leaders are more hard-nosed. Colonialism was generations ago, argues Emmanuel Macron. Instead of clawing over the past (or, like previous French presidents, trying to resurrect it), he is instead obsessed with making sure that Africa’s problems do not spread to Europe.

But it is not just the consequences for the rich in Europe that should concern us. In the 1960s, the American sociologist, Paul R. Ehrlich predicted that a “population bomb” in Asia would lead to mass starvation. He got it hopelessly wrong, and such Malthusianism has gone out of fashion. Famines, we realise now, are mostly caused by politics – not food shortages – and as a result they are now less common.

But has that fostered complacency? Africa today is actually less self-sufficient in food than ever before. That is despite some fairly impressive improvements in agricultural yields. There are just too many people, and, perversely, for such a huge continent, not enough fertile land. The shortage is fueling violent conflict between farmers and nomadic herders from Nigeria’s Middle Belt through to Kenya’s northern rangelands.

During my travels across Africa over the past three years, I have begun to wonder if things might not get much worse before they get better. To make a fairly gross generalisation, in most African countries, politics is still more about how to share the existing wealth between an elite than it is about how to grow it for everybody.

To make sure that they get as much space at the trough as possible, politicians will stop at nothing, whipping up ethnic tension and division; stealing, bribing and threatening their way into office. In places where there is not a strong state, what persists instead is what the academic Alex de Waal calls “political entrepreneurship”. Politicians are essentially day traders, arbitraging between violence and money to gain power.

In most African countries, politics is still more about how to share the existing wealth between an elite than it is about how to grow it for everybody

Last year, covering the Kenyan election, I arrived (by car) at a village in the Rift Valley where the president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was hosting a rally. The population could not have been more than a few thousands, and yet there were no less than four helicopters involved in shuttling Mr Kenyatta, his deputy and other dignitaries to the site. Renting a helicopter costs around $2,000 an hour in Kenya, so just in transport costs that rally probably cost as much as the entire village makes in a week.

It is obscene, but unfortunately, it seems to work: Mr Kenyatta did well in the Rift Valley. It is not that Kenyan voters are dupes. They know politicians are crooks. But then everyone is a crook, so they vote hoping that at the very least, maybe their crook will get in and sprinkle down some of the goodies.

Where are the factories, the call centres, the big firms which could actually give jobs and hope to the frustrated young people? Urbanisation ought to provide hope and industrialisation but it is not doing enough: most African cities are like smaller versions of Lagos.

To make sure that they get as much space at the trough as possible, African politicians will stop at nothing, whipping up ethnic tension and division; stealing, bribing and threatening

People live in dysfunctional slums, where the only jobs are servicing the whims of elite. They work extremely hard just to survive. Water is carried; electricity is absent; food is cooked over open fires; disease is kept in check largely by cheap antibiotics. Meanwhile, the African rich opt out. They cope with potholes by driving Land Cruisers. When they get sick, they fly to Europe. Their children are educated at the best schools in the West. 

If you were a young African, would you put up with that? Or would you revolt? And what happens then? At some point in the next few decades we are going to find out.