There has never been a better time to talk about Africa’s youth than now. Worldwide, the number of people aged between 12 and 24 has reached 1.3 billion – the largest in history. At the same time, terrorism, radicalisation and insecurity are also on the increase.
A recent report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation concluded that in the next three generations, 41% of the world’s youth will be African. The continued exclusion of young people in key decision-making structures, however, spells a bleak future for the continent.
In Africa, youth participation in social, cultural, political and economic spheres is sorely lacking. Development policies are not adequately informed by the youth, as there are often no proper channels to reach this growing segment of the population.
The continued exclusion of the youth in public decision-making structures and processes robs young people of a sense of belonging and ownership. The high rate of unemployment, coupled by a lack of prospects, subjects many young people to a great degree of stress. It is at this level where organised crime, radicalisation and youth survival strategies converge.
East Africa’s burgeoning youth population, for example, is increasingly defining the region’s security environment. Population growth in recent decades has made this one of the youngest regions in the world; a trend that is projected to continue. Yet violent extremist groups like al-Shabaab remain active in the region and are extending their influence and recruitment to a number of countries, including Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Kenya has been hit particularly hard. Recent terror acts have left citizens in fear, while the continued killings of politicians, including that of Kabete member of Parliament, George Muchai, is adding salt to the injury.
Sudan and South Sudan, on the other hand, have been facing continued civil war and ethnic militias. Uganda has a history of organised crime and groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), while Somalia has for years been at the mercy of terror group al-Shabaab. Nigeria, similarly, continues its own fight against Boko Haram. The majority of those fighting in such groups are young people, raising the question whether African governments are in control of their youth.
The way in which African governments respond to threats of crime and insecurity has been blamed for increases in terror attacks. Instead of calling for dialogue and working to get a clear understanding of the underlying issues that fuel crime and radicalisation, most African governments have opted to silence all dissenting voices, labelling them as criminals. In this way, certain parts of the population are systematically pushed to the edges and categorised as unwanted. The majority of these are young people.
There has been lack of informed strategies, based on empirical findings of why people join crime and terrorist organisations. Governments have failed to address the causes of youth radicalisation and crime, and are instead only addressing the symptoms.
Young people join radical groups for various reasons, including a sense of belonging and survival. When societies exclude the youth in matters of governance and leadership, the young feel alienated and find acceptance in criminal and terror groups. Rising unemployment and poverty worsen the situation. These adverse political and economic circumstances, coupled with religious and ethnic discrimination and heavy-handed counter-terrorism operations, form the ‘push factors’ that cause radicalisation.
In East Africa, conditions have enabled al-Shabaab to strengthen its foothold in the region. In Kenya, the Mandera terror attacks at the end of last year, which left 28 bus passengers and 36 quarry workers dead, only added to rising insecurity and the threat of terrorism. The government’s response has been rated low and there have been calls for an overhaul in national security sector leadership.
Young people (aged 15 to 34) constitute 35.39% of Kenya’s population, yet they have remained at the periphery of the country’s affairs. Their needs and aspirations have not been accorded due recognition, nor have their knowledge, skills or energy been used effectively.
The challenges facing African states on insecurity are clear and should not to be underestimated. The population of young people is growing, which provides a huge opportunity for the continent’s growth and development. The youth are a precious resource that must be fully engaged towards a more just future. It is the high time that African governments purposefully initiate youth-friendly development policies, which should be informed by young people themselves. Negotiation, dialogue and youth involvement is the only option left if Africa wants sustainable peace and development.
Written by Sebastian Gatimu, Researcher, Governance, Crime and Justice Division, ISS Nairobi