Patrick Awuah, Founder & President.
May 4, 2011.
As a native Ghanaian, presiding over a university of 500 hardworking, optimistic students from 11 African countries, I have watched with concern and sorrow as the citizens of the neighboring country of Ivory Coast seemed to teeter on the brink of civil war. Now, as that country inches back towards normalcy and stability, let us not overlook the hundreds of innocent citizens that lost their lives, the civil structures that collapsed, and the huge economic costs of the turmoil.
The international press has reported on the refusal of the leader in power to respect the democratic process, as well as on the deeper roots of the conflict in regional, religious and ethnic divisions.
We’ve seen conflict as a result of such divisions around the world – the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Malaysia to name a few. Recent civil wars in Rwanda, Congo and Sudan raise concerns. With nearly all African nations containing diverse regional and ethnic identities, does this mean all African nations are doomed to cycles of civil strife?
The real question for the international community to consider is this: What steps are being taken in Africa, right now, to lay the groundwork for stronger civil institutions and lasting economic progress, thus mitigating future conflict? In my mind there are three foundational opportunities:
First, build better social cohesion through education. Educational institutions in some countries, such as my native Ghana, have focused on creating camaraderie among youths of divergent backgrounds. Students selected to attend Ghana’s merit-based secondary boarding schools are sent outside their home region. This builds bridges. In my boarding school, the closest friendship I forged was with a young man from a different ethnic-linguistic group; we could communicate only in English, and have remained lifelong friends.
Young Africans need a safe but challenging environment in which to examine—and ultimately overcome—old stereotypes and fears. When educational institutions offer seminar-style discussions and group projects—and when they reach out to include women and the poor—students learn to build effective teams across gender, economic, religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Second, fight corruption from the bottom up. In a society where the group in power unlawfully commandeers resources, and where leaders show no concern for their fellow citizens, it is not surprising that one group will fight fiercely to maintain power and control. But today, a new generation of Africans has shown a willingness to hold themselves to a higher standard.
Last June, I watched with pride as an Ashesi graduate, in her commencement address, passionately defended our strict honor code, stating, “We have come from a background that has taught us that it was right to get by and wrong to get caught. However, for us, it’s time to say enough is enough!”
Third, foster a robust, diversified economy, where initiative and entrepreneurship are rewarded. In a society where a fixed set of resources provides all the wealth, or where personal connections are the only way to prosper, suspicion and competition between groups is nearly inevitable. Sadly, many young Africans grew up seeing only one obvious path to prosperity—to join a corrupt government bureaucracy. However, my experience has shown that today’s young Africans, if given the skills to think critically and address complex problems, become eager to forge new paths to prosperity.
I am mindful that in my classrooms sit potential future leaders of this continent. It is important that we give our students the tools to prevent another crisis like the one which unfolded in Ivory Coast. If we want to ensure that Africa is not doomed to endless cycles of corruption and strife, we must go beyond giving our students a narrow technical education; we must nurture their moral imagination, teach them to respect their fellow citizens, and to develop creative solutions to Africa’s challenges.
My experience gives me great hope that young Africans can become the homegrown, ethical citizens who will bring lasting peace and prosperity to their home continent. After all, over 95% of the diverse graduates of our university have chosen to stay in Africa and have found meaningful work here. For the sake of Africa’s future, we owe it to this rising generation of African citizens to give them the skills and courage they’ll need to set Africa on a better course.