Building peace in the minds of men and women

Africa’s Youth Take on Leaders at 50th Anniversary of African Union

In the same circular hall where the Organization of African Unity was founded 50 years ago in Addis Ababa, African youth competed for speaking space on 24 May, calling for jobs, innovation, peace, security, respect for human rights and participation in decision-making.

“How do we fight corruption?” “How do you mentor young people?” “How do you advance girls’ rights so they can become leaders one day?” “What are you doing to combat poverty?” “What is being done to break the cycle of conflict?” “How do we keep Africans in Africa?” “How can you guarantee peace and security in Africa?” Children and youth from ten years and up had travelled from across the continent to voice their concerns and aspirations.

The intergenerational dialogue offered youth from across the continent an opportunity to address leaders and senior representatives, including the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the Presidents of Liberia, Senegal and Kenya, as well as Zambia’s first President Kenneth Kaunda and Sam Nujoma, the first President of Namibia. The Director-General was the only UN principal attending the event.

“Youth are struggling to make their mark and have their voices heard in all spheres of influence,” said Dr Carlos Lopes, Executive Secretary UN Economic Commission for Africa. “Africa has the largest youth population of the world. By 2015, over one fourth of the world’s work force will be African. The energy of Africa’s youth and their frustration with current conditions has to be channeled into the right policies. We need a new intergenerational social compact. Our challenge is how to employ Africa’s youth potential to build prosperous and peaceful continent.”

This potential was reiterated by Dr Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission, who placed special emphasis on science and innovation.

“We need to work now to unleash the creativity of youth. Africa has to become skilled. No continent can be prosperous unless it has innovation, unless it gets into science and technology.”

Dr Zuma also recalled that one year before the African Union came into being, the Pan-African Women’s Organization was founded. She applauded the fact that UNESCO and the AU will conduct more joint research on this historic initiative and publish a book on it this year.

The anniversary event gave special attention to UNESCO’s General History of Africa, a vast undertaking initiated in 1964 to respond to the aspirations of the newly independent African States, to decolonize and reclaim their history.

Today, eight volumes have been published in 13 languages, with the ninth in the making.

“You have to be proud to be Africans and for this you have to know your history,” said Director-General Irina Bokova, adding that the History is now being adapted for school textbooks.

“We are working on Africa’s 129 World Heritage Sites, to preserve traditions.  In today’s globalizing world, it is more important than ever to know about your history, to be proud of it, to respect your identity and that of others, if you want to move forward and build a culture of peace. For this, we need quality education for all, qualified teachers, good universities, and skills that enable you to become citizens of the world. UNESCO is working on all these fronts to accompany government’s efforts across the continent, one of our global priorities.”

Leaders agreed that youth had to be more integrated into decision-making.

“We need to demystify leadership and be more accessible, to listen to the voices in this room and have more interaction at AU level and national level to take on board new ideas coming from the floor,” said Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta. “We need to create opportunities in Africa on a wider scale rather than limiting ourselves to our national boundaries.”

Senegal’s President Macky Sall stressed that the battle was to give youth the right education and skills, to foster a sense of African citizenship, enable the free movement of peoples across the continent, and combat corruption to promote democracy and good governance.

Dr Zuma urged youth to participate actively in political life. “The African Union must be driven not by its government but by its citizens. You must participate in the political life of your country. This is where policies are made. Get engaged, get involved and change what you want to change within countries, and make sure that policies are implemented at level of Member States.”

Stating that “50 years ago our forefathers launched a movement for the unity of continent,” Liberian President and Nobel laureate Dr Sirleaf Johnson affirmed that “today Africa is a continent of hope, a renaissance is unfolding. Africa is the continent of opportunity – seize it and make it work.”

All leaders underlined the urgency of job creation, skills training, and youth enterprise schemes to drive sustainable, inclusive and shared economic growth.

The Director-General also met with State Ministers of Education, Culture, Water and Energy, Science and Technology, and Communications to review UNESCO’s cooperation with Ethiopia. All state ministers underlined the need for capacity building and technical support in a wide range of areas, from educational statistics, water management and heritage protection to media legislation and technology upgrading.