Youth Of The Sub-Sahara: Amazing Opportunity Or Potential For Unrest?

By Andrew Friedman AFKI Original Published: May 27, 2014, 3:06 am

Of the 36 countries in the world with the highest percentage of population 14 and under, 33 are located in sub-Saharan Africa. According to the World Bank, in Niger, fully half of the population is within this age group. Rounding out the top four are Uganda, Chad and Angola, all just slightly under the 50% mark.

The burgeoning youth population across the continent provides immense opportunity if paired with education and pro-growth governance policies but could lead to continent-wide unrest if jobs and growth do not materialize.

The potential such a lopsided population presents is obvious. In the coming decades nearly half of the current population will enter the work force, giving a number of countries access to untold human capital.

For example, compare Niger to much of the developed world that is on the polar opposite end of the demographic spectrum.

While half the population of Niger will enter the work force in the coming decades, eager to contribute to the GDP, take jobs, create industry and widen the government’s revenue base, only one fifth of the current population of the United States population is below the age of 14. This means that a large portion of the United States will be leaving the work force, no longer creating jobs or industry, lessening the government’s revenue base and burdening the country’s social safety net.

The problem of an aging populace is even greater in many other developed countries, such as Canada (16% 14 and under), Russia (15%), and Germany and Japan (13% each). The demographic problems of these developed countries is compounded by tremendously low fertility, all falling well below a replacement rate of two children per adult woman. The United States is just above replacement, with a slowly growing populace at 2.01.

In addition to the already very young population, Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world at nearly 6.9 children per adult woman, according to CIA World Factbook statistics. While this is the highest in the world by nearly three quarters of a child; the country is followed on the list by several sub-Saharan states including Mali, Burundi, Somalia, Uganda, Burkina Faso and Zambia.

The potential presented by these youthful populations has recently been confirmed by a study conducted by Renaissance Capital, an investment firm. Singling out Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Zambia, the firm said that each 1 percentage point annual rise in working-age population should correlate to an increase in 1 percentage point in growth rate. This could mean tremendous growth for the many sub-Saharan countries with tremendously youthful populaces.

Unfortunately, such growth is not guaranteed. Renaissance’s report highlights a number of difficulties experienced by investors in such demographically advantageous countries.

Demographic Disadvantages

To start, governance is at best unstable in many of these countries. While the report details the unpredictability of Mugabe in Zimbabwe and the authoritarian rule of Kagame in Rwanda, the same issues can be found in many of the countries on the list.

Mali suffers from a severe governance gap where government control outside the major cities is a concern, Chad is a mainstay on Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst” list and Angola’s President, Jose Eduardo dos Santos, has been in power for longer even than Mugabe.

Without policies that focus on education and economic opportunity, along with steady governance to attract foreign investment and stimulate entrepreneurship, these countries will not be able to take advantage of the large proportion of the populace entering the workforce. If the burgeoning working-age population is not offered economic opportunity, they could turn into one of the continent’s largest problems rather than one of its largest advantages.

Analysts have long been worried about high unemployment rates among youth. The argument goes that idol hands, when paired with youthful energy and angst are an excellent recruiting ground for criminal, or even subversive or terrorist, activity.

Citing a 2011 World Bank Survey, the Australian delegation to the United Nations Security Council stated that among ideological terrorists in Mali, 21% who were surveyed said they were attracted to the cause due to unemployment. As mentioned above, Mali is among the countries with the fastest growing working-age population.

The delegation went further, calling youth unemployment “a decisive vulnerability” for countries attempting to prevent such terrorist attacks and pointing out that the average age of terrorists, along with the average age of citizens in sub-Saharan Africa, is getting younger. For the delegation, “there is no doubt that Africa is the new theatre in the fight against terrorism.”

Youthful populations create tremendous opportunity across sub-Saharan Africa. As much of the developed world suffers from aging populations that leave the workforce and drain social safety nets, many African states have the world’s youngest populations. This is strengthened by the high fertility rates across the continent.

This human capital can be turned into one of the continent’s biggest advantages or it could become one of the continent’s most dangerous weaknesses. Good governance and pro-growth policies have the ability to take advantage of this human capital. If Africa’s leaders miss their chance, there is no limit to the problems it could cause.


Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.

Sign up for the AFKInsider newsletter — the most compelling business news you need to know from Africa and the African diaspora, delivered straight to your inbox.

Tags: , , , , , , ,