Q&A | The youth bulge a ticking time bomb in East and the Horn of Africa

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Youths search through a rubbish tip in the hills above Mombasa.
Youths search through a rubbish tip in the hills above Mombasa.
(Photo by Neil Thomas/Corbis via Getty Images)

  • Poverty rates and high youth unemployment levels in sub-Saharan Africa are considered potential threats to peace and security.
  • Organised criminal networks provide protection for mainstream politicians for leverage.
  • The prevalence of structural conflicts provides a conducive environment in which other conflict issues continue to sprout.

There's an urgent need to turn the "youth bulge" in the East and Horn of Africa into economic opportunities to avoid worsening instability in the region, resulting in internal displacement amid conflict.

A youth bulge is the presence of idle and unemployed young people in a community. Recent studies indicate a strong link between countries prone to civil conflicts and those which have burgeoning youth populations.

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James Owino, the lead researcher in a report titled " Durable solutions to migration challenges in East and the Horn", talks to News24 about the youth bulge and conflict. His answers were edited for clarity.

What's the major concern in East Africa in dealing with the youth bulge?

The prevalence of a poor economic situation, coupled with the high rise of poverty rates in many sub-Saharan countries as witnessed by high youth unemployment levels, emerged as a potential threat to peace and security. This plight of the countries' development record was attributed to governance issues emanating from lack of or ineffective policy implementations by successive national levels.

The issues here are: lack of participation; accountability; and transparency in development planning, thereby leading to a lack of prioritisation of community needs and youth agendas, thus creating a protracted nature of negative peace. As a proximate factor, the negative impact of such economic decline has contributed to the entrenchment of youth vulnerabilities at all levels. This has manifested through immense deprivation, the entrenchment of poverty, and a general decline in the majority population's living standards.

Besides, the harsh economic conditions have been expressed in various forms, especially among the vulnerable youth. For example, stress, family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, the continuous growth of informal settlements, non-attendance or discontinuation from primary education, the emergence of female-headed households, and high unemployment.

These, among other factors, have exacerbated the rural-urban migration that has created a huge youth bulge in the major urban areas. As a result, most of the youth's economic hardships remain a proximate vulnerability risk factor for political mobilisation and getting involved in organised crime based on relative deprivation, ethicised perceptions for elite manipulation, and violence.

Is there political will in addressing issues relating to the youth bulge?

The question of political will is dictated by the country-specific style of leaders (a situation that varies across the regions) or the nature of regimes in power. This informs a cross-cutting analysis that establishes the extent of political will as follows; to a small extent, yes.

There exist state and non-state initiatives aimed at addressing the youth agenda, however, the implementation is faced by a number of reasons due to country-specific situations. A number of nations have strategic master plans for youth agenda and are in the process of implementing the sustainable development goals, including the recognition of notable regional and international agendas for youth development.

Young adult men attend a training class in Kenya

East African Community Common Market Protocol, for example, AU Agenda 2063 and implementation of action plans for Resolution 1325. But to a large extent, no. There's the prevalence of systemic corruption. Many studies have documented the negative impacts corruption has on wealth creation and provision of social services, and its latent consequences on crises such as forced migration. The majority are the youth, forced out as economic immigrants due to a lack of opportunity and the embezzlement of public funds.

The youths' direct involvement in political violence is more evident than ever. Why?

Political dynamics and the nature of states' fragility across the region are dramatically evolving and are directly intertwined with various conflict issues at national and regional levels. These are negative ethnicity, identity, and the new class conflict where the notion of youth mobilisation is aimed at initiating political tensions and possible inter-communal clashes, and insecurities towards self-centred interests.

Most conflicts in the region are connected to long-term structural issues that have created a potential climate for violence without, however, making its eruption inevitable.

These issues are directly and indirectly linked to the larger national context regarding social, political, and economic governance issues, including the youth agenda.

At the structural levels, the prevalent issues are associated with the failure and inadequacy of the successive regimes to undertake and implement constitutional, legal, and institutional reforms.

This has negatively affected the social, political, and economic space, which dictates the levels of the states' potential risk and vulnerability to conflict and violent incidents. Accordingly, the prevalence of structural conflicts provides a conducive environment in which other conflict issues continue to sprout. Analysis of conflict data supports that; the capacity for elite manipulation, political mobilisation, and ethnocentric incompatibilities towards violence is facilitated via abuse of the vulnerable youth.

A negative coping mechanism – how do we survive? Agents of violence, is it by choice or circumstances?

The proliferation of organised criminal networks (youths-led and controlled groups) mainly emerged as a major threat to peace and security in the region. Incidents of gang-related activities are fuelled by various factors, such as economic motives, drug trade, abuse, and political opportunism and control. This scenario is linked to the number of actors involved in creating the necessary condition in which organised criminal activities present a conducive environment for political, ethnic, and group mobilisation.

As such, the economic agendas of organised gangs and networks are linked with the prevalence of illicit trade of drugs and other illicit substances and the increased number of school dropouts. This, particularly the availability of youth, benefits the actors economically with regard to drug-related activities. In some cases, certain gangs are said to have gained more influence by providing services such as transport, waste removal, electricity, and water distribution and illegally collecting levies where state service provision is not available.

Organised criminal gangs are directly entangled and intertwined with both national and local level politics as witnessed during previous elections.

For instance, in Kenya, and according to a concluded study, criminal gangs provide security and protection during political rallies, campaigns or meetings and can be utilised to intimidate opponents and their supporters.

Lastly, rapid population growth and urbanisation, inadequacy in service provision, limited employment opportunities, and livelihood-generating mechanisms make the youth more vulnerable to organised criminal networks. The youth's involvement in organised criminal networks is purely based on economic gains and lack of alternative livelihood as is evident from the strong relationship between the criminal networks and the youth. To be specific, militia groups in Congo, pirate activities along the coast, cattle rustling and cross-border raids, human trafficking cartels and illicit trade within and outside the regions, and vulnerability to violence extremism (rise in youth radicalisation), these situations portray the nexus and the risk factors associated with youth bulge and the prevalence of conflicts and security incidents in the region.

Lenin Ndebele is the News24 Africa Desk journalist. The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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