President Obama looking into a crowd of young African leaders (© AP Images)
President Obama offered political advice to young Africans at the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship Presidential Summit. (© AP Images)

“Worry less about what you want to be, and worry more about what you want to do.”

The advice comes from President Obama and is often offered to young people with whom he speaks — many of them bright and politically ambitious. Obama wants them to realize that whatever societal changes they might want to achieve, they can start working toward them now. “You don’t have to have an office to do that.”

Ambition vs. apathy

In some places, bright young people are less interested in holding a political office because they are distrustful of public institutions.

Hadeel Ibrahim, director of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, works to help them realize their own leadership potential. Noting that in many developing countries, about half the population is under 18, and often political officeholders are older, Ibrahim says it is hard for natural mentoring relationships to form between officeholders and young civic activists.

In some sub-Saharan African countries, she says, the average age of politicians is 65, while the average age of the populations they govern is 19.

Speaking July 22 at the Wilson Center in Washington, Ibrahim argued for the political relevance of youth: “In the next decade you will be able to win an election without anyone over the age of 30 voting for you.”

In places where political systems are in need of reform — including some countries where change has been urged for many years but has yet to happen — “you don’t need to wait,” Ibrahim said. “Take [on] the system legitimately.”

She said change will occur as young people create movements for themselves and their peers that are designed to challenge the system. It takes inspirational leaders to restore faith in politics, she believes, and young people should take the initiative because leadership tends to be self-selecting.

Like Obama, she thinks working on a cause that is close to one’s heart is a good start. “Who [seeing Obama when he was] the age of 19 would have gone, ‘Oh, Barack Obama, he’s going to be president,’ right?” Ibrahim said.