From Rwanda to Liberia, a new wave of young policy makers are taking up key government posts across Africa. With youth comes a fresh perspective on Africa’s development priorities, an impatience with red tape, and a stronger commitment to economic reform. But will a lack of experience prove problematic?

From her plain office in downtown Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, Kampeta Sayinzoga has been busily pushing her country into unchartered economic territories. In 2011, she steered Rwanda through its first, heavily oversubscribed initial public offering, and in April this year she headed up technical teams for its successful maiden international bond issuance.

As a woman in her thirties, Rwanda’s permanent secretary to the finance ministry cuts an unexpected figure. “I’m in a position that normally should be for a 65-year-old man, and I’m a 33-year-old woman,” she says. And her youth brings with it an impatience with cumbersome bureaucracy. “What would probably take my dad [Jean Sayinzoga, chairman of the Rwanda Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission] four meetings, will take me one Blackberry instant message,” she jokes.

She and a cohort of young politicians and policy makers in Rwanda’s government agencies, who are predominantly women, enjoy a no-nonsense working dynamic. “Because we are so free with each other as young people, we are capable of telling each other the truth,” she says. “Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you get it wrong. I think at our age it’s easy to say: ‘Well I tried, tough luck’, and you move on. But I think with older generations, sometimes the ego thing creeps in.”

Rwanda is unusual in terms of the demographic of its government, but it is not entirely unique. In a handful of other African countries young decision-makers are exercising increasing influence in government. In Kenya, that list includes the self-effacing 44-year-old Henry Rotich, cabinet secretary at the treasury, a technocrat who previously worked for the central bank. Rotich has been credited with crafting key policy frameworks in the last few years, and must now work to tackle Kenya’s fiscal challenges as the government tries to deliver on the hefty election promises made by president Kenyatta.

In west Africa, and thanks to a recruitment drive by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia boasts one of the continent’s rising stars: 41-year-old finance minister Amara Konneh. A refugee from the country’s civil war, Konneh showed his political nous early on, convening an administrative committee, opening a school and working with the United Nations to meet the needs of refugees. After emigrating to the US, Konneh returned to Liberia in the early part of the last decade to contribute to reconstruction.

He has made remarkable headway in one of the world’s poorest countries. As planning minister, Konneh led the implementation of Liberia’s first poverty reduction strategy, which connected 10,000 households in Monrovia to the power grid and restored basic government services including health, education and policing to all 15 counties – all this in a country that had just $80m in the public coffers when the new government arrived. As finance minister, he implemented an action plan for the first 150 days of President Johnson Sirleaf’s second term, which saw the rebuilding of the container terminal at the port of Monrovia, and the completion of a new highway from the capital city to Buchanan, which cut in half a four hour journey.

Of course, the continent also has its share of young leaders who don’t have quite the same background. Joseph Kabila, the 42-year old president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, inherited the title after his father died, and has done little to drag his country out of the economic and political doldrums in the last decade. Madagascar’s controversial former president Andry Rajoelina, a 37 year-old former DJ, seized power in a military coup in 2009. And in South Africa both Julius Malema and his successor in the ANC Youth League, Mzwandile Masina, have struggled to articulate a credible new voice for the century-old party.

But there is no doubt that a crop of fresh-faced, skilled technocrats are pushing government boundaries in those environments conducive to their ascent. What common threads do they share? Firstly, they do not remember much of Africa’s independence era, instead coming of age during the debt crises of the 1980s, when they saw first-hand the dangers of economic misgovernance.

Omotunde Johnson, a septuagenarian former IMF official who still remembers studying Latin in colonial-era Sierra Leone, believes the crisis had a formative influence on today’s younger policy makers. “Countries had seen the consequences of overvalued exchange rates, governments’ excessive borrowing from central banks, non-concessional foreign borrowing, producer prices of state-owned marketing boards that resulted in huge taxation of agricultural commodities, subsidies and price controls for grain and fuel, and mismanagement of government budgetary revenue, especially from natural resources,” he recalls. “These made them sit up and re-think their whole budgetary management as well as other aspects of macro management.”

Growing distance from the independence era means younger decision makers tend not to blame their country’s woes on imperial enemies as much as their elders in the likes of Zimbabwe and South Africa are prone to.

Globalisation is another driver, according to Kingsley Moghalu, deputy governor of the central bank of Nigeria. By bringing “what is happening around the world into our living rooms, people no longer feel as if we can carry on at our own pace,” he says. “These [new leaders] see what is happening all over the world and people want to enjoy the stability, economic growth and other positive attributes they see in other societies.”

As Sayinzoga points out, younger politicians have their own shortcomings. “It’s a risk to bring in young leaders like me, we may have the energy and the passion but we also sometimes do not have the experience to step back and understand politics,” she says.

Young upstarts might have a solid grasp of the finer points of public policy, but governance is rarely about just textbooks and best practices, and vested interests will not always greet Harvard graduates with welcoming arms. Chemistry, personal relationships and the ability to navigate the political economy of governments is an art that can only be acquired on the job. And ultimately, systemic change tends to come from the top if it is to last. That ineffable quality of national leadership still tends to come with age. But if those leaders can be sure to tap their young, eager cohort, their nations will surely prosper.

A version of this story appeared on This is Africa, an FT Group publication, as part of Africa’s Reformers – a special report supported by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative.

Get alerts on Emerging markets when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article