Senegal elects youth - How every young president has performed in Africa

Bassirou Diomaye Faye

Africa has the world's youngest population, with 70% of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30, but it statistically has the world's oldest leaders. In fact, all four of its youngest incumbent leaders only came to power through military intervention rather than democratic action. On the other side of the divide, Africa has four presidents over the age of 80, the most of any continent, excluding monarchies. 

In March 2024, the people of Senegal elected 44-year-old Bassirou Diomaye Faye as its president, as a continent, weighed down by crushing regression, heaved a sigh of relief. 

Diomaye currently stands as one of the youngest world's leaders, and he is expected to bring modern reforms that should spearhead a new revolution in the world's fastest-growing continent. 

But youthful presidents with vigour are not a new occurrence in Africa, with Diomaye just two years younger than former Senegal President Abdou Diouf when he assumed office in 1981.

But in a continent of 54 countries, less than 20 presidents under the age of 50 have been democratically elected in its history, with economic powerhouses like Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya never experiencing such. 

So what happens when Africa chooses youth? This article exclusively uncovers how the 14 democratically elected under-50 African presidents have historically performed during their tenures.

Alpha Oumar Konaré

Alpha Oumar Konaré became president of Mali at 46 years of age. During his tenure, he restored democracy despite the hardships of 1997, oversaw the northern Tuareg Rebellion, and decentralised the administration. But corruption was still a major issue with his government.

His legacy lives on in Mali as the host of the 2002 African Cup of Nations, the most esteemed football competition on the African continent.

Konaré advocated for West African unity and peace on the global stage. For two terms beginning in 1999 and 2000, he presided over ECOWAS and the West African Monetary Union, respectively.

With the constitution only allowing for two terms of office, Konaré stepped down as president in 2002 and was replaced by Amadou Toumani Touré. 

To date, he is the only Malian president to leave office at the end of his term and the only Malian president to have ended his mandate with a transition between two elected presidents and not a coup d'état. 

Julius Kambarage Nyerere

Julius Kambarage Nyerere assumed office at age 42 after Tanzania supplanted the nation of Tanganyika. During his tenure as Tanzania's first president, he experienced both triumphs and challenges.

An important part of his legacy is the steadfastness with which he has pursued the goals of African unity and independence from colonial rule. 

A key figure in the continent's fight against colonialism and racism, Nyerere supported and advanced pan-Africanism and the African liberation movements. 

Efforts to improve educational possibilities for rural populations were a priority for his administration, with projects to increase people's ability to get medical treatment and education ranking high on his list of objectives.

He also placed a premium on initiatives that would promote agricultural development and reduce poverty in rural areas. His idea for economically independent rural communities was ujamaa, often called African socialism, which prioritised communal ownership and accountability.

Despite these positive strides, some considered his government's restrictions on free speech and political opposition as indicators of authoritarianism that hurt Tanzania's reputation as a democratic nation. 

The economy suffered under Nyerere's watch as his initiatives were so difficult to put into action, resulting in the stalling of industry and farmers. During his presidency, the economy of Tanzania remained flat, and a large portion of the population lived in poverty.

Nyerere's presidency also saw several incidents of political violence. In order to silence groups and individuals that disagreed with official policy, the government filtered their content. 

Since he often infringed upon human rights and penalised opponents, many were worried about the fate of civil liberties while he was in charge. Collectivised housing and compulsory rural residence were two of his concepts that caused social and economic chaos due to their unforeseen implications and the opposition they faced.

Despite these major shortcomings, Julius Nyerere's retirement as president in 1985 set a precedent for peaceful handovers of power in Africa. 

While opponents today point to the country's economic problems and his autocratic political tactics, supporters point to his socialist principles and his role in the African liberation movement. 

In Tanzania and throughout Africa, Julius Nyerere remains a prism through which people discuss and make sense of the past.

Yoweri Museveni

Since taking power at the age of 42, Yoweri Museveni's leadership has been characterised by academics as a kind of illiberal democracy or competitive authoritarianism due to the government's control over the press.

Under his presidency, there has been a surge in involvement in African Great Lakes conflicts like the First Congo War and the Rwandan Civil War. There has also been a humanitarian crisis in Northern Uganda due to the Lord's Resistance Army insurgency

Museveni has made several constitutional amendments, such as the elimination of presidential term limits in 2005 and age limits in 2017. As a result, he has been able to keep his presidency to this day. 

One of the world's and Africa's longest-serving presidents, several media outlets and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have characterised him as a tyrant.

Despite several videos and reports of ballot box stuffing, over 400 polling stations with 100% voter participation, and human rights abuses, Museveni was reelected to a sixth term with 58.6% of the vote on January 16, 2021. 

Almosr 40 years since he imposed his autocratic control, both the Human Development Index and GDP (nominal) per capita position Uganda in 167th place as of 2022. 

Jerry Rawlings

Jerry Rawlings assumed the role of president of Ghana at the age of 46, and was democratically elected to two terms in office.

Although he made some significant strides as a military junta, as a democratic president, a more autonomous Supreme Court and independent publications were made possible by Rawlings' easing of control over the judiciary and civil society from 1992 to 1996.

As well as holding demonstrations and news conferences, opposition groups were active outside of parliament.

After taking office as president of the West African Economic Community, he played a pivotal role in resolving the crisis in Liberia. Rawlings is highly esteemed internationally for mediating conflicts in the area, while Ghana is admired as an example of stability in West Africa.

But starting in the mid-1990s, the country's economy began to tank, and the administration encountered popular discontent as a result of the value-added tax system that had been imposed at the behest of the World Bank. This resulted in a 60% spike in prices and a subsequent decline in living standards. 

Jerry Rawlings' popularity, although diminishing, was still high in popular circles, despite the fact that the press and opposition attempted to damage his reputation.

Frederick Chiluba

Between 1991 and 2002, Frederick Chiluba presided over Zambia as president from age 48. His tenure was marked by both notable accomplishments and controversy. 

The smooth establishment of multiparty democracy in Zambia was a major accomplishment of Chiluba's tenure. 

After the first multiparty elections in the nation, which ended the lengthy reign of Kenneth Kaunda's UNIP, he ascended to power in 1991. 

The presidency of Chiluba was a watershed moment in Zambian politics, bringing with it more political plurality and more personal liberties for the people.

Liberalising the economy and luring foreign investment were two of Chiluba's economic policy goals for Zambia. With the help of foreign financial institutions, he instituted structural adjustment programmes that sped up the privatisation of state-owned businesses and contributed to moderate economic development. Critics claimed that these measures hurt social welfare and exacerbated inequality. 

Allegations of human rights violations and corruption brought Chiluba's legacy crashing down, despite his early success and widespread support. 

Accusations of wrongdoing, including the embezzlement of public finances when Chiluba was president, prompted legal challenges after he left office. Despite the uproar and criticism surrounding the ruling, he was cleared of all charges in a highly publicised trial that took place in 2009.

Protests and resistance were commonplace when Chiluba sought to amend the Zambian constitution in 2001 so that he could run for a third term in power. 

After the Zambian courts rejected the constitutional change, Chiluba decided not to seek re-election in 2001. His legacy was however ruined, and fears of a democratic regression in Zambia were heightened by his efforts to prolong his tenure.

Abdou Diouf

Although Abdou Diouf assumed office in 1981 at the age of 46, he was not officially elected president of Senegal until the 1983 elections.

Diouf presided over Senegal's decision to join forces with neighbouring Gambia in a confederation known as Senegambia on December 12, 1981; the two countries officially joined on February 1, 1982. 

The Senegalese government severed ties with Mauritania, and subsequent ethnic violence broke out in April 1989 as a result of the Mauritania-Senegal border war. Senegambia disintegrated as the area became more unstable.

Before the AIDS epidemic in Senegal could really take hold, Diouf launched an anti-AIDS programme in 1986. He mandated prostitute registration and used schools and the media to spread safe-sex messaging. 

Additionally, he urged civic groups and religious leaders of all faiths to speak out against the AIDS epidemic. As a consequence, Senegal managed to keep its infection rate at 2% even while AIDS was ravaging much of Africa.

His diplomatic skills and attendance at important international conferences helped elevate Senegal's profile. More collaboration and solidarity among African governments was another goal he fought tirelessly for.

He also liberalised the media industry, allowing for the publishing of new titles and the formation of new radio stations while simultaneously eliminating press offences.

Abdou Diouf laid the foundation of a modern state, supported by robust industry and the economy. In 1985, the National Telecommunications Company (Sonatel) was established by distinguishing telecommunications activities and positions within the Post and Telecommunications Office. 

Other companies that were established to meet the demand for goods and services included the National Distribution Company (Sonadis), the National Oilseed Marketing Company of Senegal (Sonacos), the Chemical Industries of Senegal (ICS), and others.

He laid the groundwork for thriving business tourism in 1986 by establishing the International Foreign Trade Centre of Senegal (CICES), which hosts regional and national fairs and exhibitions throughout the year, and by opening Senegal to tourists in 1984 with the construction of seaside resorts like Saly Portudal.

Another measure taken was the development of hotel complexes, the most notable of which was the King Fahd Palace, formerly known as Le Méridien Président, which now has a convention centre that can accommodate several international conferences in one go.

When the CFA franc, the currency of West and Central African nations, was devalued in 1994, Abdou Diouf launched a programme of structural adjustment.

The latter, which he described as "extremely challenging for the populations," allowed Senegal to clean up its economy towards the end of the 1990s.

Therefore, in 2000, Senegal's economy grew at a pace of 6%, propelled mainly by the chemical industries of Senegal, the telecommunications sector (which had the Sonatel group as its flagship), and the tourist industry (which welcomed about 800,000 people annually).

This trend has persisted since the year 2000, and the country's economy has grown by an average of 3.5 percent each year, allowing for substantial spending on social programmes and infrastructure.

Public services were dispersed around the country as a result of decentralisation policies enacted by subsequent administrations. In order to alleviate the populations, regional hospitals were constructed or renovated in major cities, with health clinics or dispensaries supplementing them in smaller towns.

The same was true for national education, which saw the construction of secondary schools in major urban areas alongside primary and secondary institutions to boost literacy rates nationwide.

As a result, all services provided by the central government are moving closer to the people, with the help of local administrations, to whom Abdou Diouf has increasingly delegated authority and resources.

The processing of agricultural goods and the availability of potable water were both designated as priority areas. In order to replace wells, water distribution networks linked homes in big towns, and boreholes were drilled in rural regions.

Also, similar to how grain mills were distributed, agricultural craftsmen were encouraged to form cooperatives, or GIEs, to facilitate their mechanisation.

During his presidency, President Abdou Diouf worked tirelessly to provide high-quality public services to the people of his nation.

As a result, Senegal became more appealing to visitors from the surrounding area, and people from adjacent nations continued to flock to Dakar for education and medical care.

Furthermore, peacekeeping operations of the United Nations, the African Union, or ECOWAS often required the participation of Senegalese security forces, including the police, gendarmerie, and army.

11,000 incarcerated people participated in a transcendental meditation-based rehabilitation programme that operated for two years in 31 prisons in the late 1980s. 

Abdou Diouf supported cultural actors, carrying on the president-poet's work. As a result, prominent figures from Senegal, including Youssou N'Dour—one of Africa's wealthiest musicians—Ousmane Sembène—a director—Djibril Diop Mambety—a sculptor—Ousmane Sow—and others, rose to prominence.

He also appointed Ousmane Paye as Minister of Sports to spearhead the sport's transition to the professional level. The latter teamed up with a German cooperative to teach local football coaches with the help of technologists. Additionally, it was their job to spot up-and-coming players, which was instrumental in producing the team that shone at the World Cup and the African Cup of Nations in 2002.

With his gracious surrender of power to his long-time foe Abdoulaye Wade, Diouf's election loss was one of his greatest achievements for African peace. Wade went so far as to suggest that Diouf be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent resignation from government.

Pasteur Bizimungu

Bizimungu became president of Rwanda at the age of 44, but many view him as a mere figurehead and believe that vice president Paul Kagame really held the power of the state.

Over what he saw as Kagame's unwarranted suppression of opposition, Bizimungu found himself at odds with his vice. 

Some of Bizimungu's opponents claim that he was corrupt because he delayed efforts by Parliament to reprimand corrupt ministers, failed to compensate evicted people from one of his construction sites, and registered two of his vehicles in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to avoid paying taxes in Rwanda.

Kagame took over the presidency after a disagreement over the composition of the new government led to Bizimungu's resignation in March 2000. 

Paul Kagame

Paul Kagame became Rwanda's president in 2000 at age 43 after Pasteur Bizimungu's resignation; he was re-elected three times in 2003, 2010, and 2017 and is currently the country's leader. 

It was during his leadership that the country's economy recovered from the devastating effects of the genocide in Rwanda, and corruption was significantly reduced. Nevertheless, a large number of observers see him as a despot. 

After the devastating crisis, many outsiders credit Paul Kagame for the country's renewed stability and economic prosperity. The international community has acknowledged the success of Rwanda's anti-corruption efforts, which have even targeted those associated with Paul Kagame. 

However, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are vocal about their concerns about what they see as a lack of respect for humans, especially during election seasons and in relation to press freedom. 

His opposition sees his government as an oppressive dictatorship that benefits the minority Tutsi population at the expense of many unsolved murders.

Foreign observers have varied feelings about the administration as a whole. President Kagame has made national development a top priority, implementing programmes that have improved healthcare, education, and economic growth, among other important indicators.

While Kagame's ties with the US and the East African Community have been mostly positive, his relationship with France was strained until 2009. 

Although there was a truce in 2003, tensions between Rwanda and the DRC persist due to allegations that Rwanda supported two insurgencies in the country, which Kagame denies, as well as a leaked UN report. 

In response to these claims, some nations withdrew their assistance contributions in 2012. International observers have not deemed any of the three presidential elections that Kagame has won since assuming office to be free and fair. Controversy has surrounded his involvement in the killings of political opponents who have been exiled.

Melchior Ndadaye

On July 10, 1993, at the age of 40, Ndadaye became one of the youngest ever democratically elected presidents in the world when he was sworn in as president of Burundi. In addition to being Burundi's first democratically elected president, he also became the country's first Hutu president.

He pledged to establish a "new Burundi" in his inauguration speech. A total of 13 FRODEBU members and 6 UPRONA members made up his cabinet of 23 ministers.

Tutsis made up 9 of the ministries, with Prime Minister Sylvie Kinigi being a UPRONA member. In order to address ethnic issues, he also formed a Council of National Unity with fifteen Hutus and fifteen Tutsis as members.

Some of his acts as president, despite his cautious approach, did manage to inflame communal sentiments. In doing so, he endangered the financial stability of the influential Tutsi elite and army by casting doubt on concessions and contracts approved by earlier Tutsi administrations.

With the goal of reducing the entrenched Tutsi domination, he started military reforms by revising the admission rules for the police and military and moving the national police to a separate command.

Problems arose on a local level due to FRODEBU's dominance; as a result, numerous public service jobs that had been held by Tutsis were taken over by Ndadaye's Hutu followers, and the resettlement of refugees returning from the 1972 killings was mishandled, leaving many Tutsi families destitute.

The situation was made worse when the newly-free press started reporting in a manner that stoked ethnic tensions. After 102 promising days in office, he was brutally assassinated in a coup d'état.

Pierre Nkurunziza

At the age of 41, Nkurunziza took office as president of Burundi on August 26, 2005, and he promptly instituted many reforms that were well-received by the people. He oversaw the Burundian state's revival in accordance with the Arusha Accords, an interethnic agreement that required the division of official jobs among the majority Tutsi and Hutu populations as well as the minority Twa population.

Under his leadership, the last Hutu rebel group to enlist in the Civil War, the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People—National Forces of Liberation—was demobilised in 2008. 

The "Paris Club" erased Burundi's outstanding public debt in 2009, and the country's involvement in the African Union increased under his presidency.

Political factionalism, corruption, and persistent insecurity, however, progressively stained Nkurunziza's reputation. Hussein Radjabu, a prominent member of the CNDD-FDD, was sentenced to jail in 2008 for allegedly insulting Nkurunziza.

But in July 2010, Nkurunziza was re-elected with a large majority, almost unchallenged, since opposition parties chose not to participate in the elections.

Isolation from the outside world deepened during Nkurunziza's third term as a result of the global outcry at the crackdown that preceded the 2015 uprising.

The administration of Nkurunziza became more and more isolated as the East African Community and the African Union tried and failed to resolve the dispute.

The middle class of Burundi fled as poverty levels rose. After advocating constitutional changes that would permit longer presidential terms, Nkurunziza withdrew Burundi from the International Criminal Court in 2017. In May 2018, a contentious referendum approved these changes.

Nkurunziza died in office in 2020, leaving Burundi as the world's poorest nation.

Faure Gnassingbé

Faure Gnassingbé, president of Togo, became one of the youngest heads of state when he assumed office at the age of 39.

He is dubbed "Baby Gnass" by his political adversaries, who claim he views the President of the Republic as a parental inheritance. On a broader scale, his family has held absolute control for almost half a century, which is, in this regard, second only to North Korea.

12 to 860 billion CFA francs have been raised since he improved Togo's economy for the purpose of building National No. 2.

In addition, he rebuilt the nation's infrastructure, making progress with the completion of the Togblécopé and Amakpapé bridges. 

Managing the phosphates industry, which contributes 40% of export income, is supposedly done for the president's personal benefit via the sale of contracts and licences.

While seeking to reestablish ties with the European Commission in order to get funds for the country's infrastructure repair in 2008, he wasted public funds by purchasing a Maybach as the presidential vehicle for 1.8 million euros.

Denis Sassou Nguesso

Denis Sassou Nguesso has been an influential figure in the Congolese government for a long time; he became president at the youthful age of 36. His accomplishments and scandals combine to form a contentious legacy.

After years of political unrest and civil strife, Sassou Nguesso helped stabilise the Republic of the Congo. Following a military coup in 1979, he was subsequently confirmed as president by general elections and remained in office until 1992.

He was briefly removed from the government, but he was back in 1997 after another civil war and has been there ever since.

During his time in office, Sassou Nguesso has helped boost the country's economy by directing initiatives to improve infrastructure and luring international investors to the oil industry. 

When it comes to regional diplomacy, he has been instrumental, especially in trying to end conflicts in Central Africa.

Nevertheless, social disparities and widespread poverty remain in the Congo despite the country's abundant oil resources. There is a lot of corruption in the administration and the security services, which makes it hard to establish accountability and openness.

Protests and debate have ensued in recent years over Sassou Nguesso's determination to prolong his reign by amending the constitution to abolish term limits. This has added fuel to the fire of worries about a decline in democracy and the consolidation of power among a select few.

Umaro Sissoco Embaló

At the age of 48, Sissoco Embaló assumed the presidency of Guinea-Bissau. He has since characterised his style of government as "Embaloism," which he describes as "order, discipline, and development." 

His anti-corruption campaign included the nationwide deployment of CCTV cameras and, in 2021, the arrest of Antonio Deuna, the minister of public health, on allegations of embezzlement.

While in office, he attempted to host foreign heads of state, including Portugal's first official visit in 30 years, as well as international organisations like the International Monetary Fund, and he oversaw the withdrawal of the Economic Community of West African States forces stationed in the nation following the 2012 coup.

March 2020 saw his first state visit, which included stops in Senegal, Niger, and Nigeria.

On February 1, 2022, a coup d'état was made in an effort to remove Embaló from office. He lamented the loss of life among the security personnel, describing it as a "failed attack against democracy."

The parliament of Guinea-Bissau was dissolved by Embaló in May 2022 because of what he called "persistent and unresolvable differences" with the legislature.

On the grounds of an attempted coup d'état, Embaló once again dissolved parliament on December 4, 2023.

Ahmed Abdullah Sambi

At the age of 48, Ahmed Abdullah Sambi became the president of Comoros. After leaving office, the authorities of the Comoros island nation brought corruption, misappropriation of public money, and forgery charges against Ahmed Abdullah Sambi in August 2018 for his role in arranging the $200 million Comoros passport fraud. 

After being imprisoned for corruption, Sambi petitioned the Supreme Court in September 2018 for unfettered access to his attorney so that he could defend himself.

The trial for high treason, embezzlement, and money laundering of Comorian public funds allegedly diverted from the economic citizenship programme took place from November 21st to 24th, 2022, before the directors of Comoro Gulf Holdings, including Majd Suleiman, Bashar Kiwan, and Ahmed Abdullah Sambi, were tried.

Both the ex-president and his collaborators were pursued by the prosecution for life sentences, which was handed down to Sambi on November 28, 2022

Final Verdict: Is youth the way for Africa?

Globally, many countries find it difficult to choose youth as even the world's leading power, the United States, has only elected an under-50 president nine times. Yet to demonstrate to the correlation between youth and success, a 2021 Gallup survey named 3 of the 9 presidents aged under 50—John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton—to the all-time top four presidential ranks of the United States.

According to Clacified's interpretation of this poll, one-third of presidents under the age of 50 had a weighted average score of three or above, compared to one-eighteenth of presidents over 50.

Looking at the track record of African presidents elected by democratic means under the age of 50 reveals both successes and failures.

Presidents Alpha Oumar Konaré, Jerry Rawlings, and Abdou Diouf have marked their terms with successful reforms, increased economic growth, and improved national stability and prosperity. Their legacies include more peaceful power transitions, more economic growth, and innovations in many fields.

On the other hand,leaders like Frederick Chiluba and Julius Nyerere have seen both successes and failures during their terms in office. Some have criticised their economic policies and how they dealt with political opponents, while others have praised their progress in areas like education and democracy.

Finally, many have accused former presidents Pierre Nkurunziza, Faure Gnassingbé, Paul Kagame, and Yoweri Museveni of authoritarianism, corruption, and human rights violations with concerns about democratic leadership, press freedom, and political repression tarnishing their legacies, which include some good accomplishments like economic progress.

So is youth the way for Africa? In a continent plagued by unconstitutional lengthy terms and bloody coups, five out of fourteen presidents under fifty have undeniably excelled.

Africa's figure of 35.7% put it slightly ahead of the United States’ success rate of 33.3%. If this trend continues, Africa electing youth has a 1 in 2.8 probability of yielding outstanding governments.

To put it into actual objective terms, if all 54 African countries democratically pick a president who is 49 years old or younger, at least 19 will provide exceptional performances. 

With an economy wallowing at the lowest of lows, Africa has nothing to lose with youth.