Inside the mind of African Unions first AU Youth Envoy

Meet the African Union’s first AU Youth Envoy, Aya Chebbi. Chebbi is a long-standing Pan African advocate with a deep passion for all Africans living an equitable life. As the AU Youth Envoy, Aya Chebbi is the spokesperson of African Youths in continental decision-making bodies. She additionally works to reconcile AU efforts on youth development, enhancing AU response in youth needs and further bridging the gap with AU as an institution, and the young citizens of Africa.

With Chebbi’s major priorities embedded in participation, advocacy, partnerships and harmonization, we tapped into her mind exploring the core pillars of Agenda 2063, and how young people can participate in AU’s vision and processes.

Your work in development is particularly engrained in peace making. What in your opinion, are the politics and actions young Africans should have in ascertaining peace in their respective regions?

I definitely think that the discourse around young people should change from the actors of violence, the radicalized, the easily manipulated around election politics, into a narrative about young people as peace builders. And the public discourse will definitely also change the reality because young people internalize how they are perceived. If we keep telling them you are violent, you’re a threat, you’re a problem then we are not having a discourse of empowerment where you feel empowered to be agents of change and to be positive contributors to society and to be peace builders. To move from being this youth in waiting to the actors of peace.

It is important to first provide a context to why we arrived here. The public discourse is obviously a contributor to that, when I say public discourse — the political discourse, the leaders. The actions young people should have it do in their respective regions is to, in relation to, for example, the African Union is the agenda if silencing the guns by 2020. When we say silencing the guns, it doesn’t mean literally giving up on arms and violence but it’s about radicalising youth, I’ll use that word, into non- violence instead of in their minds being violent because peace starts from the within and if we don’t change their mindsets to choose the peaceful way of living as a sustainable way for coexisting and development then even if we silence the guns for one day, at any point people can go back to pick up the guns.

So young people need to work with their peers on training young people on non-violence and on recruiting youth into the non-violence ideology and the peaceful beginning of our nations. So that’s one place to start. We start from within we start from our peer learning and training. But another thing is young people need to be engaged in the table of Peacebuilding and negotiation in order for them to be able to lead that peaceful agenda. So youth have to claim their space on the negotiating table and Peacebuilding table and provide their perspective, too, in their respective regions and provide sustainable solutions on how they see they’re countries futuristically. Youth today gave a great sense of tolerance and belonging to something bigger than them, multicultural, diverse and we need to optimise on that and build on it with a narrative of Peacebuilding, on living with diversity, on celebrating our differences. This is how we can move forward with the peace agenda.

Regarding the implementation of the AU Demographic dividend roadmap, kindly share your thoughts on employment and entrepreneurship: What measures can be placed to ensure that industries in Africa are green, not harmful to the environment?

I would like to say the work plan of the envoy office is about the four areas of the demographic dividends roadmap around employment, education, health and governance. In addition, we added the theme of the year which is refugees and returnees. You’re right: We need our industries in Africa to be clean. We need environmental conservation and protection and renewable energy. We’re looking at 60% of employment in Agriculture. There are a couple of things around this employment and entrepreneurship. One is we need to make agriculture cool for young people to go back to agriculture. We have a huge migration to urban place leaving Agriculture behind because of the perception that you need to look for jobs in the cities and jobs related to your education and how we match education with the market and all those complications. We need young people to look at agriculture as an opportunity. That is the drive of ending hunger in Africa and starting to thrive in Africa in terms of food security, innovation and use of technology. There are a lot of opportunities in Agriculture that we need to tap into and in order to do that we need to work hard on making agriculture for youth, starting with universities. This is something the Agriculture department at the African Union is brainstorming around.

There are amazing things and initiatives about solar and renewable energies happening already. We have more opportunities in Africa as compared to the rest of the world which is now going back into green economy and organic food. In Africa, we have this opportunity because we are still in that transition. We must tap into that and make sure that all these initiatives come together around 100% renewable, solar and green energy.

In your view, how can the AU ensure an empowerment on the quality of education received by young Africans, further ensuring a skills match on Africa’s future economies?

The great thing about the demographic memorandum is everything is linked, it’s an ecosystem. Entrepreneurship, employment, education, health, rights, youth participation and governance are all part of an ecosystem. We cannot talk about the future of jobs without talking about our education today. We are having 21st century his with 20th century education and that needs to change. We’re not having a conversation in Africa about the future of jobs – What kind of jobs will disappear and what kind of education we need to provide in a futuristic way of what will be the job in the next 10 years. Education has two levels: Formal and informal. We need to focus on the reform of formal education and make quality education that matches with the future the jobs and not just employment. We’re trying to catch up with the rest of the world in the future of jobs and technology but we have to be a little more futuristic and be more leading about what Africa will look like in 10 years.

Likewise, we need to focus a lot on skills development, informal and formal education, opportunities of peer-learning, fellowships, internships, exchange visits among African countries and opening that experience, professional programs etc. We need to really build up the profile of our youth in a very practical way and open up opportunities for them so that they will be no gap when they graduate and they are looking for jobs because we never had this before – I call it the generation of waiting and waiting for adulthood. That space between 24 years old and getting your degree and spending 5 years in unemployment before getting to adulthood and being financially independent. We want to close that gap by providing opportunities for youth to build up their skills and profiles while they are in education and after their education – while they find their way into the careers they want to pursue and finding their purpose etc.

On health and well-being: What measures will you, as AU Youth Envoy capacitate health access in Africa particularly with regards to youth who have a lack of access to health based on geographical disposition, discrimination on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation and social class?

Governance is the broad umbrella of all this. Governance is the delivery of services and we need as citizens to hold our governance to delivery services and the quality of those services. That includes health, education, jobs, all of the things governance includes in providing an environment for jobs and all the things that fall under governance delivery. For me, public health is part of the problem with governance. What kind of services are we providing and how much of our budget are we actually investing in health? The other important thing is — There is a study by the [?] Index showing the amount of money the government invests in having doctors graduating and practice medicine who go to the diaspora, especially in Nigeria. It shows there is a huge loss when you spend lots of money educating one person for 8 years in medicine who is now very qualified, a professional, to go to the public service but because you are not as a government providing the infrastructure and services needed for that young person to practice there’ll then go to the diaspora and thrive there because they are brilliant young people.

So what are we doing about that? The amount of money is worth billions of dollars in that capacity goes outside of Africa and is utilized outside of Africa. So when we look at the health sector, first it’s about governance – delivery of services, second it’s about our brilliant young minds of doctors and nurses who go outside of Africa because they can’t find the infrastructure needed within, this needs to be tackled in order to get our people back to the continent to serve in the positions that they deserve to serve in. On access for all social classes etc, that is a conversation on inequality. Inequality is a whole structures system that discriminates people based on class and gender identity and disability and so forth that excludes them in not only health but the education system, employment sectors and different sectors, political participation – everything. It is not unique to health. We need to address accessibility in all of the demographic dividend areas and in every single contribution in society of what does that mean for young people, what does that mean for people with gender identity, social class, disability, religious affiliation, political affiliation, skin color.

We want young people to be judged based on their skillset and that’s it. Not based on any other thing. Accessibility to all services, primarily health need to be equal to everyone as a citizen to their country, not based or judged by anything else.

On rights, governance and youth participation: In countries that experience digital censorship at times of political dissatisfaction primarily from youth, how can the AU, and AU Youth organs find measures on interceding this growing practice – which is deemed a threat to democratic processes?

For me, I would advocate for equality because that’s basic. Equality, citizen participation and governance as the delivery of services. So we have to advocate for equality, the delivery of services – holding governance accountable and citizens for delivery those services. So my role here is an advocacy role and it’s also part of my work plan. I have a whole section on health and the things that we will try to champion in health especially in relation to women whether it’s ending FGM and providing quality health access at a national level, youth participation in crafting, designing and implementing health polices and so forth. There is a lot we can do in advocacy as well as looking at member states and where they are at in health sector and seeing if they need support more a policy level, we’ll need to provide that, and youth participation at that level. If the policy is there then we need to push for the implementation. If there’s a good example, we need to take that good example to other countries so it’s a lot of advocacy work.

Lastly, what are the ways that young people can engage in ensuring the AU in becoming a stronger institution?

Basically, as young people we need to make sure that we don’t give up on the African Union, first and foremost. This is because this union is and will remain relevant and the space for our unity and the heart of what unites us which is pan-Africanism and the pan-African agenda that we have to integrate and continue the struggle that the organization of the African Union was built: for political freedom when members states started to gain independence.

We need to continue that struggle and as youth, redefine pan-Africanism because the pan-Africanism today is not the same as the 1950s and 1960s. They wanted independence and to build member states and nation states. What we want today is a borderless Africa, e-governance, e-citizenship, a single market on e-commerce and we are moving as a union in this direction.

We’re talking today about the trade-e zone, a free-trade area. We’re talking about all sorts of integration initiatives and the union is sending a strong message to the world about us coming together and uniting. So for me the first thing, young people need to understand that this union is our union and it’s an important space for our unity and solidarity to continue our struggles. We have to redefine the vision of the Union based on our needs, our challenges today because it has to continue and remain relevant. After, we need to take leadership by co-leading and engage in the Union as young people as well and make the union young.

To answer your question about ensuring the AU becomes a strong institution means many of the reforms already happening in the AU being made stronger to make it effective. However, young people outside of the union can play a role by making sure that all the policies – the progressive policies, the agendas and agreements happening in the union like Agenda 2063 which is the most revolutionist agenda in the world. The African Youth charter is one of the most progressive in the world and so on and so forth. There are many instruments in the union that young people can use at a regional and national level to make the union stronger because the more young people implement this policies and hold their governments accountable who’ve signed up to these agreements, we make the Union stronger as well and create more solidarity and good examples as leaders in the union and the more we engage governments to be young and have female leadership in the Union as well. Today we have 55 member states with only one female leader, so we need to push more for female leadership in the Union as well.

So for me I think it is important to see why the union is relevant and why we shouldn’t give up and support it and be immersed in its vision and we need to engage with the union itself to take up leadership positions in different programs, departments and agendas. Also if you’re outside of the union, you can also support by making the Union stronger by taking up all the regional instruments, policies, progressive agendas, revolutionary agreements that happen at a union level that help hold governments accountable but also to push governments to sign up to many of the ongoing revolutionary agreements that are on-going on like the free-trade area right now trying to get more countries sign up to this and put us as not only a strong union but a strong global player in the international community. Young people should get informed about the different instruments at the union and support getting their governments to sign up and/or implement what they’ve already signed up for.


Engage with the AU Youth Envoy on their newly published website, to follow any calls and opportunities of engagement.