“The current global crisis gives Africa a chance to be at the forefront of a new world”


Mohamed Yahya is the current Head of the United Nations Development Programme in Nigeria as UNDP’s first Resident Representative, following the recent UN reforms. This appointment follows his role as a development and conflict prevention specialist for UNDP in Ethiopia, being responsible for regional development initiatives in support of the African Union and Africa’s Regional Economic Communities. Prior to his appointment, Mohamed was UNDP’s post-conflict recovery specialist supporting UN interventions in Afghanistan, Guinea Bissau and Liberia. 

Mohamed Yahya discusses African opportunities

As a SOAS alumni, Mohamed holds a bachelor’s degree in Politics and History, followed by a master’s degree in Violence, Conflict and Development. 

I had the opportunity to discuss with him for Black History Month and had a very inspiring conversation ranging from his career to personal experiences; 

Studying at SOAS 

Mohamed emphasised that being at SOAS provides great opportunities to build networks and relationships that last forever. He currently has deep connections across the continent thanks to the relationships he formed at SOAS, whether it was in the dorm or at the university itself.  During his four year at SOAS, he learned to be very analytical and learn to not accept things as they are, which has been very helpful in the work that he does. 

He studied history, and that has been extremely important for him to understand the anthropology of social change, while he noted that economic indicators don’t necessarily give as comprehensive basis.  Most important for him was the confidence that the university gives students, especially in a place like SOAS, and to be able to take on things that you’d otherwise been less prepared for or less confident about. He mentioned that overall it has made a huge difference in his career and the work he does. 

Realising how migration can be a win-win situation 

Throughout his career, Mohamed has worked a great deal on the topic of migration, having recently launched the ‘Scaling Fences’ report with the UNDP. 

The aim of that report was to try to find empirical evidence of where people were moving and why. UNDP works to provide evidence to policy makers across continents. Given the difference in issues, they are helping European policy makers avoid rise of populism and rising fear of migration while trying to help African leaders understand why people are migrating out of the continent to find opportunities and realise their dreams, rather than doing it in their own country. 

He mentioned that migration is currently a very hot topic in Europe, but they believe that confronting people with evidence would be helpful in that regard. One of the problems is that often people that land in Southern Europe don’t have papers, which create a sense panic or concern for those citizens. However, the reason that people arrive through irregular channels is because the regular way is extremely challenging, and it’s often near to impossible to get a visa. But, the people that go to Europe tend to be well educated, young and dynamic, and hungry to work and study, often with the aim to return home. If policy makers acknowledge this, migration can be a win-win situation. 

Removing barriers for young people 

Mohamed mentioned that there’s a paradox in the context of youth in Africa because it’s a very youthful continent, e.g. the median age in Nigeria is 17 – 19 years old and majority of the population is under 30. However, if you look at the leadership, the majority is in their 70s. 

He further mentioned that the value system there is a very cultural phenomena; the idea that the older you are, the wiser you are, and that is something that African societies tend to hold dear. But then there’s this frustration, because scientifically, the older you are, the more tired you get, while in African countries that’s when people are running for power. Many presidents in the region are in their 80s in a population that’s very young.

Mohamed further mentioned how when you’re in your 80s it’s really hard to understand the needs of a 19 year old, e.g. the struggles they face, and the 4th industrial revolution – the social media revolution. However, the issue not only being that the old people are dominating the field, it’s that the people that vote for them are the young people, so it’s this value system that needs to be addressed. He believes that the way to get young people more involved in politics and decision making is through social engineering; to change people’s perspective. 

While the political aspect is a very serious problem, Mohamed noted that is it’s important to address the economic sphere; that young people need to access credit, especially if they are  trying to start businesses, and that’s a huge problem, so there’s a lot of barriers to inclusion in a society that is extremely young. Those that are excluded from this access often tend to either migrate within or outside of the continent, join bandits, insurgencies or extremist groups. The demographics of insurgencies tend to be very young, so this is a fundamental problem. 

Asked why the value system is not an important factor there, Mohamed said that the reason is because insurgencies are, by nature, disruptive and disrupting the social order and norms. There it’s important who is the strongest and can fight, so age become less of a big deal while, in democratic societies, money, access to resources and age become more important factors. 

Importance of narrative 

Discussing the importance of narrative and how it’s constructed, Mohamed noted that the African narrative is always constructed by western society, but that’s a problem with media. However, learning history at SOAS gave a good insight without a negative narrative. There, he learned a about the development challenges that are self-evident. He further noted how the Africa that is often portrayed in the West, is not the Africa that he grew up in, and how there’s a huge discrepancy when you have a continent that is humongous. This makes people tend to not understand that when we talk about conflict and instability in the continent, it’s very small part. In most places there’s no conflict. This disparity in narrative further effects capital flow and investment confidence, so that has not been a helpful narrative that has a consequence. However, now there’s more investment coming in from Asia, who have seen that Africa has a lot to offer and that it is not a charity or a basket case. 

He noted that now there’s more awareness of the need to rethink race relations. He mentioned how there’s work being done within the UN system to make more deliberate actions to understand race and how it plays a role in international relations and development. The UN secretary General came with a strong position for the Black Lives Matter movement and the organisation is starting to look internally at what type of blind spots or unconscious biases they may have as an organisation. He emphasised that the stance of the organisation towards race is very clear, but that they are now making a more deliberate action to understanding race and how that plays a role in international relations. 

Moving forward 

Ending on an uplifting and positive outlook, Mohamed noted that the current generation of young Africans has become incredibly powerful on a global level through music, literature, science, medicine and different spheres. He feels that there is a shift in narrative and pushback, especially through social media where young people are countering the narrative shaped in media, and that is allowing for an attitude shift. He is very hopeful that we are in a shifting world where young Africans are shaping their narrative, and that it’s very powerful. 

He mentioned that celebrating Black History Month is the foundation of a changing and empowering world that is more constructive. Even in world where we are discussing Covid and how that has impacted the world, the pandemic has also given Africa a huge opportunity to get at the forefront of a completely different world that is not going to be the same. He emphasised that young people are now in a position to take advantage of this new organisation of the world. 

The advice he gave to young people, especially Africans, is that it’s time to not only look at the hindrances but also the opportunities that the world has to offer in a post-Covid era. 

Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.

This blog is part of our Black History Month 2020 series, which celebrates black voices and achievements over time, and across the globe. The series features contributions from SOAS alumni, academics, and students.

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