African Leaders Envision Promising Future

As democracy catches on, will social and economic progress follow suit on the continent?

Posted: 03/29/2013 03:51 PM EDT

Africa is a dynamic continent of nations, to say the least. And leaders from some of the most progressive African countries gathered in Washington, D.C., to take stock of how far these nations have come. Images of an untamed, backward continent, riddled with poverty and political corruption are now viewed as both cliche and in many cases, inaccurate.

The Institute of Peace hosted a panel featuring President Macky Sall from Senegal, President Joyce Banda from Malawi, President Ernest Koroma from Sierra Leone and Prime Minister Jose Neves from Cape Verde. They tackled a number of issues from the sustainability of democracy to the advancement of women and young people.

The first mission was to dispel some of the commonly held misconceptions about Africa that don't take into account the continent's unique potential. President Sall of Senegal talked about Africa as a continent on the move.

"We are no longer a continent of wars or coups. It's normal that there would be conflicts. We are moving toward democracy and we are the cradle of civilization," Sall said. 

Still the panelists conceded that there needs to be a stable governmental infrastructure in place to usher in a new era of democracy and development. Prime Minister Neves of Cape Verde believes that states need to be capable of managing diverse internal factions, conflicts, and environmental risks in order for true development to take place.

"When we have greater development, we'll have greater freedom. And when we have greater freedom, we'll have a stronger democracy," Neves said.

But with these African economies being among the fastest growing in the world, what can be done to keep democracy on track and ensure that their economies will remain vibrant? President Banda of Malawi touts accountability measures to protect a growing democracy while President Sall believes that watchdog groups are necessary.

"We must also be fair and equitable in the distribution of wealth, so we need inclusive growth to help the weakest among us," Sall said. 

But what about young people and women who make up the majority of the continent's population? Panelists were asked, What is being done to ensure that young leaders of the future continue the path to democracy and that women are treated fairly?

The consensus was that for young people, an emphasis on education and training need to be in place and for women, a strong tone of inclusiveness at all levels is key for a government to take into account the concerns of women.

"When we empower women, we empower a nation. I want to point out that in Africa, we have two female presidents. It's our time to seize the moment," Banda said.

President Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone committed his second term to help youth realize the full benefit of his country. As a result, he established both a National Youth Commission and Ministry of Youth.

"I have youth serving as full-time ministers. It's not about making them leaders of tomorrow because in Sierra Leone, they're already leaders today," he said. 

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(Photo: Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images)

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