Africa has the world's youngest population, and paradoxically, the world's oldest politicians. While, the continent's median age is 19.5 years, many long-standing government leaders are in their 70s, 80s and 90s.
This gap, however, is slowly beginning to shift. This summer, the Nigerian Senate passed the much-anticipated Not Too Young To Run bill, which seeks to reduce the constitutional age requirement for running for elective office in Nigeria. In Liberia, MacDella Cooper, a young former refugee is "answering the call of a new generation of Liberians" and running for President in the upcoming October 2017 elections.
Born in Monrovia, Cooper was forced into exile in neighbouring Ivory Coast where she spent her teenage years as a refugee before moving to New Jersey in the United States. She attended and graduated from Barringer High School in Newark where she was one of the top-ranked students in her class, and subsequently earned a full scholarship to The College of New Jersey.
Ahead of the President elections held to take place in Liberia on October 10, VICE Impact spoke with MacDella Cooper about her journey from refugee to Presidential candidate, the change she would enact as President and why young people hold the key to Liberia's success.
VICE Impact: What motivated you to run for president?
MacDella Cooper: After the peace agreement was signed in 2003, I started to think about of how I could be of help to the people of Liberia and returned home in 2005 as a former refugee. I saw the harsh conditions of the country and the little that was left after 14 years of civil war. So, as a young woman, I began to give back through my charitable foundation and humanitarian efforts, educating young children, helping women groups and putting young adults through college. I also set up an academic institution that took kids off the streets and put them into safe educational environments.
I saw how beneficial these activities were for the redevelopment of the country and I thought, this is the solution for Liberia, investing in young people and investing in the lives of women. But over time, I also saw the need and importance of influencing and changing policies, putting in specific laws to protect women's rights, make education mandatory and ensure basic health care.
I entered the race to do exactly that. Our President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was elected as the first female head of state in Africa, and she came to sustain peace after all these years of chaos, but now is the time to focus on developing the nation.
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As a refugee, education played an important role in your life. It also holds an important role in your campaign. Can you tell us more?
I want to revamp the education sector in Liberia, and get young people into classrooms and young children into schools.
We also have a generation of young Liberians that aren't quite adults, but too old to go back to the classroom. I want to rehabilitate them because unfortunately, a lot are using drugs and substances to forget the atrocities they went through as kids. I also want to train them and get them ready for the job market.
Liberia's economy is heavily reliant on natural resources. What do you want to do about that?
We depend on the sales of our commodities, iron ore being one of the biggest. But when the world's demand for iron ore will depreciate, Liberia will take a financial hit and without any education or revenue, we won't be able to run any of our institutions and the vicious cycle will continue.
"I want to revamp the education sector in Liberia, and get young people into classrooms and young children into schools."
I want to build a strong economy by investing in alternative industries and I want to create jobs for Liberians to help boost the economy. For that to happen, we have got to have an educated society, a skilled society that can run institutions and different types of industries. So the focus right now is education to get young people educated and trained.
You are the youngest contender in the campaign by at least a decade. In light of the #NotTooYoungToRun campaign, that was recently successful in Nigeria, how has your young age been received in Liberia?
I am a young woman, but I haven't had any hinderance to my education despite the war. While I lost three years of school because of the conflict in Liberia, when I got to America, they told me, 'If you are 16, you've got to be in the 10th grade.' So I skipped years, managed to graduate third out of 1,200 students in my year and by 23, was done with my college degrees. Most, in Africa, are in their 40s by the time they are done with college.
So when I came out and said I was running at a young age, the reaction was, 'Shouldn't you be in college or university?' It was a big shock. It was unheard of.
You are also the sole female presidential contender.
I am a mother, I am young person. I know the struggles of a mother, of women, and I understand the struggle of young people who are just trying to seek out an existence, just to be someone, to get an opportunity. When an individual becomes too old, they forget the issues of the youth, that's when the disconnect happens.
Aside from education, what other issues do you want to tackle?
Only 1.6 percent of Liberians have access to electricity, but electricity plays a major role for security, for small businesses, entrepreneurs, and development. A lot of women, for example, sell soft drinks and soda to try and earn a living. But they end up paying so much to fuel their little power generators to freeze their refrigerators, they end up making a loss because of the lack of energy in the country. Electricity is also needed for security. Rape cases in Liberia are extremely high, especially in Monrovia. And as I'm speaking to you right now, in the headquarters of my political party, we are sitting in the dark. In the Ivory Coast, they have so much electricity, that it is affordable and available even for the poorest. I want the same thing here.
"I am a mother, I am young person. I know the struggles of a mother, of women, and I understand the struggle of young people who are just trying to seek out an existence."
What part of your upbringing had the strongest political influence on you?
Politics has influenced every aspect of my life. In the 1980s, I was caught up in a Coup d'État and I saw my grandfather get stabbed and left for dead with my own eyes. I remember that day very well, we had to go to the forest because of the chaos in the country. Then in the mid-1980s, there were several other Coup d'États and by the 1990s, there was a full-fledged Civil War. I had to escape as a refugee and was finally adopted by the US. There is not one aspect of my life that wasn't influenced by politics.
73 percent of countries restrict young people from running for office, even when they can vote.