The first-ever youth envoy of the African Union, Ms. Aya Chebbi of Tunisia, has been advocating for young Africans’ voices to be heard. In July 2020, her office launched ‘Sauti’, a blog entirely dedicated to young female voices across the continent. In this interview with Africa Renewal’s Franck Kuwonu, she talks about the importance of opportunities for the most marginalized people to tell their stories, and the demands of youth across the continent and their clamour for co-responsibility with adults. Below are excerpts.
Africa Renewal: Last month, your office successfully published ‘Sauti صوتي’, a blog which features contributions from young African females. How did the idea come about?
Ms. Chebbi: The inspiration came from meeting young women during my tour of 15 African countries, including refugee and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps last year. I realized that they are marginalized in many ways just by being young, female and sometimes survivors of gender-based violence.
I thought it was important to highlight, especially during this pandemic, how young women on the frontline have been resilient and how they are responding and coping when lockdowns disrupted their education and employment. Some of the young women were even in lockdown with their abusers. Since the blog focuses on COVID-19, it was particularly important that we bring these issues to light.
The ‘Sauti’ blog features female-produced content. What about the young men, what outlet would you offer them?
It is not a competition. The whole idea of gender equality is to also educate men about women’s issues. So, when young women tell their stories from their own perspectives, from their own lived experiences, men can have a better perspective of what those young women are going through.
Then it is for the men to ask themselves how, from their positions of power or from their influence in the community or in the family, they can be part of the solution. So, I think the idea of having young women speak up for themselves is also empowering for men.
To celebrate Beijing+25, the blog featured 25 contributions from over 500 submissions. How was the selection process done? What did you look for in each contribution?
The call for nomination was made to women aged 18 to 35 years. We selected six themes, some of them related to “Silencing the Guns” which is the African Union’s (AU’s) theme for 2020. Other themes included education and employment. We also wanted the contributions to be about COVID-19.
It was really tough to bring it down to 25 and it was inspiring to read these very powerful stories. It was very emotional for me at the launch of the blog online and to put faces behind these powerful stories. I got touched when they said ‘Sauti’ blog gave them a platform to express themselves. It showed us that we need to do more of this. I would like to see it replicated at the national level in every country because there are thousands of stories out there that need to be told.
In 2018, at the start of your assignment as AU Youth Envoy, you said you wanted to be a bridge-builder, to build trust by closing the information gap between the AU and African youth. Two years down the line, do you think you have made progress on that front?
I hope so. It's for the young people to judge, but I think ‘Sauti’ is a testimony of that because we have basically pioneered the first-ever blog of the AU: a space where young people can feel that they're connected to the AU, not just through frameworks and very formalized ways, but also through ways that allow them to express themselves in their own words. I hope we will do that through the African Youth Charter Hustlers initiative and the many inter-generational dialogues we have been organizing.
Can you tell us what the African Youth Charter Hustlers and intergenerational dialogues are?
The African Youth Charter Hustlers is a project we started two months ago where we called for the selection of two youth advocates (men and women) of the African Youth Charter in each country. They will work with their National Youth Councils to implement the charter, but also to help us in the reporting and monitoring of the charter.
Through the intergenerational co-leadership, I am trying to make us (young people) understand that it's not about just making noise and wanting to replace all the old people in power. And it shouldn’t either be about the old people saying: “youth are a threat; they are often in the streets demonstrating and wanting to take over”. We need to move beyond that conversation and bring both parties to the table. Every single space needs to be inter-generational.
So, in many of the activities that I have participated in with the AU Commission, our partners and member states, I have always requested that the activities be intergenerational. I never wanted to be the only young female in the room. I wanted young people to be at the table and to have meaningful conversations.
I'm happy to see many leaders now call for that. I'm happy to see AUDA-NEPAD CEO [Dr. Ibrahim Mayaki] talking about the importance of intergenerational co-leadership. I'm happy to see the UN Women Executive Director [Ms. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka] calling for Beijing+25 to be about intergenerational co-leadership. I was happy to see the First Lady of Botswana [Neo Masisi] at the launch, call for co-leadership. And the list goes on. More leaders are now calling for it. This will shape the space in a couple of years, I’m just sowing the seeds and I hope this concept will continue and be institutionalized in our governments, initiatives and programmes.
You also said you would initiate a discussion with AU member states on the future of employment in Africa. What are member states saying?
It has been a tough discussion to have. We are trying to advocate, especially during this COVID-19 time, that local manufacturing will create jobs for our young people. I have also called on ministers of youth on the continent to recognize the innovation of young people so they can scale up their prototypes and go to the market.
Everyone is saying: yes, we need to harness demographic dividends; yes, we need jobs for youth. There is a lot of talking, but the tough part is putting it into action. It becomes difficult when we don’t have answers to questions like: how do we create jobs and how do we use our own resources to create them? The conversation has to continue to guide member states on how to create the environment for young people to thrive.
Do you feel that these discussions are going somewhere?
Well, one of the things we've been saying is that finding a solution to unemployment in Africa is not just about entrepreneurship. It is also about getting young people into public service, because surveys showed that some of them want to be public servants.
And in some countries like Rwanda, we see youth participation in the public service increasing. And we recently saw Chad appointing young ministers to the government, and Namibia hiring a lot of young people and supporting their National Youth Council. So, there are good case studies and good best practices. However, for a continent that has almost 70% of its population being under the age of 35 we need to scale up. We need to accelerate.
What other challenges have you had?
Personally, the first obstacle —and it's the toughest — is to sit in formal meetings. Before I became the AU Youth Envoy, I used to spend most of my time with youth in different settings and it was exciting, passionate and dynamic. It was solutions oriented.
But now, I sit down with much older officials trying to convince them that they should care more about their youthful population. So, it has been really tough. And I think that's why I even moved from this idea of ‘let's take over and run all older people out of office’ to: ‘let's lead together’. We're not asking you to leave. We're asking you that, in order to digitalize and to ease this leadership transition, let us join with you. Let's have young Cabinet ministers, young parliamentarians, etc.
It is tough to sit down for hours and hours in meetings trying to convince people who don't see the value of youth and only see them as employees, refugees or migrants. They consider youth as a problem that needs fixing. They don't see youth as contributors or partners in finding solutions, and so on.
The second biggest challenge is bureaucracy. I think that is why a lot of young people don't go into government institutions or if they do, maybe don't survive long. You may hear about the appointment of a young Cabinet minister but after one year or a year-and-a-half, they resign because they could not handle that amount of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy prevents innovation, creativity and quick decision-making.
Do adults of today seem to forget that they were the young people of yester years?
They do! I mean, some of them are inspiring and I hope they could remind their counterparts. People like Mama Graca Machel, Mama Joyce Banda; Mama Ngozi (Okonjo-Iweala) acknowledge their youthful past and listen to us young people. But in most cases, when you sit with other much older people, they even forget they were part of revolutions and liberation movements fighting for change. And now when they see a young person who is radical in his or her view, they are no longer comfortable.
What are some the successes you have achieved so far?
One of the successes is bringing the AU to grassroots youth organizations. One of the things that we've been investing in is bringing a lot of new, even radical, movements to the table so that they can disrupt the conversations. So, I'm happy with that, and I hope that the discussion space will open more and more in different places, whether in the Commission or in member states.
The second thing is moving the conversation from transferring the torch and the legacy between generations to actually talking about Africa. Now, we're not talking about the future but about today. I am leaving a legacy of inter-generational co-leadership and I hope it will translate into concrete policies and reform where young people have their rightful place in their countries and governments.
What are your top 3 priorities going forward?
My mandate ends in six months and one of my priorities, which I've been working on and that I'm happy to see move forward, is to continue formally establishing the Office of the AU Youth Envoy because it didn't exist when I came in two years ago. No one knew about it, no one knew how to work with it, but we succeeded in putting it together and it now has physical space where young people can visit. I also would like, before I leave, to be able to secure funding for the sustainability of the office moving forward.
My second priority is to deliver on the AU theme of 2020 “Silencing the guns in Africa” and what young people think about it and how they can contribute.
I also would like to advance some of the projects we're implementing now, like the African Youth Charter Hustlers’ selection, because that's a two-year project. It will continue after I leave, but we are in the process of selection as well.
Young people are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic as the school year is disrupted and national economies are shedding jobs, while some of them may have lost family members and friends to the virus. When you speak with them, what are they saying or asking for?
We actually did 22 virtual African Union youth consultations on COVID-19 and we are publishing a policy paper in two weeks. We had about 22,000 participants and the young people are saying a lot, but I’ll try to condense.
There are many priorities for young people but the top one is job security. A lot of young people lost their livelihoods during the pandemic.
The second priority is food security. Many youths would say: ‘I might not die of COVID-19, but I may die of hunger’.
The third one is gender equality and gender-based violence. HIV and AIDS, women with disabilities, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), child marriage, are also some of the issues that came out.
Another thing that came out of these discussions is the distrust between young people and African institutions.
And then the last thing that came out in every single consultation is the digital divide. 70% of Africa is offline.
Do you have a message for young people in Africa?
Yes! To the young people I would say, keep being resilient, keep being powerful and so inspiring and leading by example. You have shown the world how Africa can be resilient and how you can innovate in times of crises, even though you're the most challenged; live in the most hardship situations, conflict areas, as IDPs, in refugee camps and in informal settlements. So, I can only say keep being resilient but vigilant.
Breaking down trade barriers across the continent to advance a peaceful and prosperous Africa, “The Africa we want” is the ultimate goal of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). With about 70% of Africa’s population being young people, how best could they contribute to achieving this goal?
I think the vision of the 21st century, the vision of the millennials, is a borderless Africa. It’s an Africa where we have the African passport. Where we can trade with each other, and be in each other’s countries. So, the vision is there, and young people are actually driving that vision.
However, what we need is for the AfCFTA to break it down for the youth. How they can benefit from it? How they can drive it? And that's what we tried to do on Africa Integration Day on 7th July. We held an online inter-generational dialogue with 600 youth the whole week. Young people wanted to know about the AfCFTA. The eagerness is there, the willingness and the curiosity to know more about it is also there.
We need to now make sure that our young people understand what the free zone agreement is about and how they can benefit from it. What does e-commerce mean for them? What does the single market mean for them, how they can benefit from it and start also creating jobs themselves?
If you had a final message to African governments, on behalf of the youth that you represent, what would it be?
That would be: listen to your youthful population. Listen to young people who live their realities and who bring the solution. And then, open the space for youth to thrive; to express themselves, to understand their African identity and their belonging to the “Africa We Want”.
Open the space for us to be in leadership positions. Appoint young people, lower the age requirement to run for office. That way Africa can move forward faster. And by doing that, we can take Africa to where she deserves to be.