The death last Friday of Robert Mugabe, the big man of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 2017, is a reminder of the paradox that Africa, the most youthful continent, tends to be ruled by the old.
When Mugabe was finally overthrown two years ago at age 93, he was 75 years older than the median Zimbabwean, who is 18.
Grotesque as he was, Mugabe was not an anomaly: Broadly speaking, sub-Saharan Africa tends toward gerontocratic cultures in which men are deemed to deserve to accumulate power, money, and wives by outliving their rivals.
It’s no continent for young men.
Why Africa is so biased against the young is uncertain. One theory is that in a region besieged by diseases such as malaria, the sexiest attribute in a husband is a strong immune system, which is most convincingly demonstrated by not dying.
In any case, this leaves Africa an unappealing place for young men, of which, however, the continent is lavishly supplied.
Not surprisingly, African young men sometimes run amok, such as the Boko Haram militia in the Sahel that kidnaps schoolgirls.
Increasingly, the young men of Africa are leaving for Europe and North America.
And, as professor Stephen Smith of Duke’s African Studies department notes in his important book The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent, now available in English after causing a sensation in France, there are vastly more who will depart for the First World in the future as the African masses modernize enough to contemplate immigrating:
Young Africans will rush towards the Old Continent in an inversion of Europe’s “Scramble for Africa” at the end of the nineteenth century.
Granted, nobody knows for sure how many people there are in Africa today, much less how many there will be in 2050 or 2100. When it comes to Africa’s population, Smith, who had previously served as a foreign correspondent in Africa for French newspapers like Le Monde, warns:
…to ground arguments on statistics looks like a fool’s errand. To use a decimal point is proof of a researcher’s naivety, if not incompetence.
African governments are not terribly careful about collecting vital statistics and even if they were, politics would get in the way of publishing objective censuses.
Still, it is quite certain that the population of sub-Saharan Africa is growing much faster than that of any other large region on earth.