As the managing director of a community-based radio station in one of the most populated and underserved urban areas of Abidjan, the commercial capital of the Ivory Coast, I am working in a neighborhood of about 1.5 million people facing poverty, insecurity, pollution, illiteracy and inadequate power and water supplies. Yet I consider myself privileged to be involved in this community as a young African striving for a better Africa.
I am convinced that African countries can reach a new potential in the 21st century and make up for their delays in economic growth and human development.
Why do I feel so strongly about Africa’s possibilities? Perhaps it is the endorsement I have received having been selected to participate this year in the Mandela Washington Fellowship, part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a program of President Obama. But as a matter of fact, much has been given to me, so much is expected of me.
As part of this initiative, I am currently in New Brunswick at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, among a cohort of 25 incredible young African civic leaders. Their achievements and commitments in their respective countries are impressive, with various national and international distinctions.
To name but a few, Kennedy Masiye, from Zimbabwe, is the Law Society of Zimbabwe young human-rights lawyer of the year; he has risked his life to defend rights activists in his country. Hikmat Baba Dua, from Ghana, was elected in 2013 as one of the 25-under-25 most-promising women leaders on the continent by the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa.
The Mandela Washington fellowship has therefore provided a special opportunity for me and others to mutually learn from our initiatives, to network and to envision common regional and Africa-wide projects to achieve our goal of contributing to the sustainable development of our nations.
The Rutgers Center for Global Advancement and International Affairs, which is acting as host for us, has made it possible for us to visit national and international institutions and other development agencies based in the United States that have interests in Africa; these include the United Nations Department of Public Information, the National Defense University, the US Congress and corporations such as Johnson & Johnson.
In addition, we have been taught by a wide range of professors at Rutgers, who are helping to shape our critical thinking, strategic decision-making abilities, problem-solving acumen and capacities to lead and achieve success in complex situations, like the community in Abidjan where I work.
Before my arrival in the US at Rutgers, the community radio station I manage, Radio Arc-en-Ciel Abobo, began a public-awareness program with the Office of Transition Initiatives of the USAID, aiming to promote peaceful elections as Ivory Coast prepares for its presidential vote in October. We started this campaign to encourage people’s participation in the electoral process and to promote tolerance and a spirit of fair play throughout the voting period and afterward, when the results are announced.
We think that our program will contribute to deter violence and conflicts during the election. This is important, since after the second round of our previous presidential election, held in 2010, a conflict broke out over a dispute of the poll results by the two candidates, Alassane Ouattara and the incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo. Ouattara won but Gbagbo refused to cede office as president. This dispute developed into a conflict that killed more than 3,000 people.
The death toll reflected political intolerance and manipulation by many parties involved in the election process. The United Nations and France interceded to oust Gbagbo, who is now facing crimes against humanity charges at the International Criminal Court.
As the leader of the radio awareness campaign, I will share my experiences not only with my team but also with various civil society organizations across the community to help contribute to secure, peaceful elections.
My longer-term goal is to set up a community-based radio station focused on motivation and empowerment of youth and women so they can participate more actively in the economic and social development of Ivory Coast, namely through entrepreneurship, creation of income earning activities and playing instrumental roles in formulating local and national policies.
My experience in the Mandela Washington program and that of my fellow Ivoirians and other young African leaders will be important in conveying a message of hope and promoting successful initiatives among, especially, youth.
I also want to become a member of parliament someday to contribute to define laws and policies that can ensure social justice and equal opportunities for all.
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Essan Emile Ako has worked for the last four years as the managing director of Radio Arc-en-Ciel, a community-based radio station in the Abobo community in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. Ako was selected as a participant in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders Initiative, a US government program, in 2015.
Ako holds a master’s degree in English linguistics from the Université Félix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan.