Image Credit: “Detail - Masks (Nigeria)” by Andrew Moore, licensed under CC BY 2.0
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On Monday, December 12th, 2022, the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC’s) African Peacebuilding Network (APN) co-organized a policy dialogue as a side event ahead of the US-African Leaders Summit, in conjunction with Search for Common Ground, the African Union Youth Ambassadors for Peace, the United States Institute of Peace, and the George Washington Elliott School’s Institute for African Studies in Washington, D.C. The event, titled “Peace, Trade, and Youth: The Future of US-Africa Cooperation,” brought together policymakers, academics, youth, and civil society from the United States and Africa to discuss the most pressing issues facing African youth and US-Africa cooperation. The event focused on US-Africa relations from the perspective of the next generation and featured a wide range of discussions, covering topics such as democracy, trade, climate change, and youth political participation in democracy and elections.

The opening session featured Desirée Cormier Smith, the State Department Special Representative for Racial Equity and Justice; Christian Achaleke, African Union Youth Ambassador for Peace; and Dr. Rhuks Ako, the coordinator of the African Union (AU) Youth for Peace (Y4P) Africa Program, discussing the importance of equitable national and transnational partnerships. Youth Ambassador Achaleke’s moderation of the panel centered the proceedings around the challenges posed by inequality in peacebuilding efforts, as well as the importance of youth representation. Special Representative Cormier Smith discussed the mandate of her position and her responsibility to ensure that US foreign policy protects and empowers marginalized racial and ethnic groups, combats structural racism, and fosters equity. Dr. Ako spoke to the origins of the African Union Youth Ambassadors for Peace program, particularly the initiative’s foundational framework that arose from the direct input of youth, rather than a top-down mandate.

In the panel titled “Democracy & Elections,” APN and Next Gen Program Director Dr. Cyril Obi moderated a lively discussion with a panel of presenters that included Odeh Friday, the Accountability Lab Country Director for Nigeria; Cynthia Chigwenya, African Union Youth Ambassador for Peace, Southern Africa; Dave Peterson, Africa Director, National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Washington DC; and Prof. Charles Ukeje of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria (APN Collaborative Working Group, 2014-16). They spoke to various aspects of youth engagement and leadership as a vital aspect for advancing and sustaining democracy in the context of US-Africa relations. Dr. Charles Ukeje spoke to the role of the United States as a moral guarantor in Africa and not as a “policeman,” but rather as an actor with the responsibility to speak out against abuses and corruption. The panelists’ contributions coalesced around the engagement of young people in relation to the interlocking nature of development, peace, and democracy in any long-term and sustainable solutions to insecurity and poverty. They also made recommendations for expanding Africa-US relations along the lines of a more equitable partnership, building the capacities of youth for more effective participation in inclusive democratic governance, strengthening independent political institutions, and making leaders listen more to young people in relation to decision-making.

Dr. Mahamadou Bassirou Tangara, University of Social Sciences and Management, Bamako, Mali (APN IRF 2021) spoke during the parallel panel session on “Trade, Finance, & New Industries in Africa,” which also featured other presenters, including Fenohasina Rakotondrazaka Maret, Development Economist and Public Policy Expert and Christian Achaleke, African Union Youth Ambassador, Central Africa, in dialogue with Mike Jobbins, Vice President for Global Affairs and Partnerships at the Search for Common Ground, Washington DC. In his presentation, Dr. Tangara emphasized how low levels of investment lead to a lack of job creation for youth, which negatively affects a wide array of peace, democracy, and development goals. He also spoke to issues of inequity not only in transatlantic partnerships, but within African nations, as a fundamental roadblock to sustained progress and made recommendations for addressing these issues.

After a brief break, participants reconvened for another panel session on “Mitigating the Climate Crisis: The Role of Governments & International Actors,” which featured presentations by Prof. Rawia Tawfik, Cairo University Egypt (APN IRG 2017); Dr. Lilian Kong’ani, Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies/University of Nairobi, Kenya (APN IRF 2022); and Khaloud Ben Mansour, African Union Youth Ambassador for Peace, North Africa, in dialogue with Prof. Gilbert Khadiagala, Director, African Center for the Study of the United States (ACSUS), University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. In her presentation, Prof. Tawfik highlighted the importance of democracy as a medium for open and honest discussions about climate issues and solutions, as well as the importance of transnational initiatives that recognize the transboundary nature of climate change. Dr. Kong’ani spoke about the vast experience and knowledge of youth in climate change-affected contexts and the importance of bringing youth perspectives into high-level policy discussions. Panelist recommendations included greater data and information sharing between actors, increased youth input on natural resource management, and an increase in climate-oriented youth employment and volunteer opportunities.

Concurrently, participants convened for a panel titled “Digital Technology: A Medium for Peace,” which saw the participation of Amanda Feldman, Global Policy Fellow at Search for Common Ground; Habibou Bako, Policy & Outreach Associate at Search for Common Ground West Africa; Diana Paul Chando, African Union Youth for Peace Ambassador, East Africa; and Sade Dada, Anglophone West Africa Public Policy for Meta. The assembled panelists largely focused on the challenges that social media presents in terms of hate speech and misinformation, which resulted in recommendations for holistic approaches to moderating content that brings technology companies, civil society organizations, and local communities together and fosters dialogue on the opportunities and issues that growing digital connectivity presents.

The event closed with a Youth Plenary Discussion featuring Dr. Simbarashe Gukurume, Sol Plaatje University, South Africa (APN IRF 2021); Chido Cleopatra Mpemba, African Union’s Chairperson’s Youth Envoy; Siaka Togola, Director of Communications at the Digital Trade and Data Governance Hub, George Washington University, in dialogue with Philip Oke-Thomas, Africa Policy Associate, Search for Common Ground, Washington DC. In his presentation, Dr. Gukurume highlighted the importance of treating youth as leaders of the present, rather than just the future. He pointed to the rise of social movements such as Rhodes Must Fall and #FeesMust Fall in South Africa, #EndSARS in Nigeria, and Black Lives Matter in the United States as examples of the growing power of youth-led movements that develop on social networks. Dr. Gukurume drew on his own APN-funded research to speak to the importance of identity and ownership among youth as a driving factor for sustainable civic engagement and economic growth.

Overall, the event was well represented by a diverse set of actors and saw wide-ranging agreement on the most pressing issues facing African youth and US-Africa cooperation. At the forefront were recommendations for better integration of youth into power structures and more equitable transatlantic partnerships. Additional recommendations included more protections for personal data against abuse by governments, an expansion of the financial technology sector in Africa, the creation of a permanent seat for the AU at the G20, increased community engagement, and a discussion of the practical steps needed to increase youth engagement and empowerment. The event was recorded and is available to view by visiting Search for Common Ground’s YouTube page.