bombs ready to explode? unearthing the relationship between Africa’s youth, unemployment and violence

At the top of my list of lazy assumptions people make about peace and security that I hate (should really create that list one day) is that violence is caused by high numbers of ‘idle youth.’ I wrote this for Ventures Africa examining the extent to which it is true.

A hungry man is an angry man.’

This phrase is often used to connect youth unemployment, poverty and violence. A dire warning, it is meant to act as a call to action. But, is there any evidence to prove this link exists?

Half the current population of Sub-Saharan Africa is under 25 years old. In Somalia, 62.9 percent of the population is under 24. The median age in Nigeria is 14.

A country with more people of working age can be good for the economy and development. However, rather than viewing these demographic changes as positive, there seems to be an unyielding anxiety of what this ‘youth bulge’ could mean in terms of peace and security.

After all, high economic growth, seen in many African countries, has not led to job creation. This is true in Nigeria where the last decade has seen both economic growth of 7 percent and double the rate of unemployment. At the same time, modernity and globalization have increased the gap between the hopes of young people and their realities. Once you see how others are living, you tend to be less satisfied with your own lot in life. Adding to this, state and non-state institutions have weakened and are struggling to cope. These changes are taking place against a backdrop of increased insecurity and violence, with young people at the center of these conflicts.

The combination of these factors has led to oversimplified assumptions about the relationship between increased youth populations, high unemployment and violence.

“People say that young unemployed people cause armed conflict,” said Kimairis Toogood of International Alert, a peace building organisation. ‘They say this without any nuance, without looking at the different factors contributing to youth frustration and grievances and without any evidence backing this up.”

‘Youth’ have become a threat and a source of worry. ‘Idle youth’ are seen as ticking time bombs, ready to be activated at any moment. They form a ‘ready pool of recruits’ for armed movements and criminality alike. They are a problem waiting to happen. This narrative has led to panic, with politicians scrambling to come up with solutions (or at least claiming to do so).

It is understandable why people think this way. After all, we have seen many violent groups and gangs across the continent made up largely of young people. With only an estimated 16 percent of young people across Sub-Saharan Africa employed in waged jobs in the formal sector, unemployment seems a likely cause of why they join these groups. As Ms. Toogood said, “They cite any civil war and say ‘see all those young boys with guns? They were probably unemployed.’ And then it’s done. People don’t want to take the time to ask nuanced questions. People are generally too lazy to do that.”

Indeed, this way of thinking has a fundamental flaw. Study after study says there is no evidence to support this assumed correlation. A review of research on the topic found no evidence on the effect of creating jobs on stability for countries with a history of violence. For example, support for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (commonly referred to as the Taliban) did not decrease in Afghanistan once young people found jobs. In Somalia too, young people getting jobs did not lead to decreased support for armed groups.

It seems that, although unemployment can cause frustration and marginalisation, it is not the only reason young people join violent groups. Indeed, research finds young people take up the gun not because they are poor, but because they are angry. It is these experiences of injustice that drive involvement in political violence, not poverty. These dynamics are heightened by failures of the state.

“We need to acknowledge the heterogeneity of youth,” said Ms. Toogood. She noted that grievances which, lead to youth involvement in conflict are diverse and linked to many socio-economic and political factors. “It is more about systemic, structural inequalities that are institutionalized. These trump whether a young person is employed or not,” she said.

Grace Jerry, Executive Director of Inclusive Friends, a disability rights organisation in Plateau, agreed. She talked to me about the realities for young people with disabilities. “When people are marginalised for too long, they become perpetrators of violence. They want to just break free. They want to do something. They want to prove a point,” she said.

Indeed, while young people can accept unemployment- corruption, discrimination, feeling cheated or humiliated and abuse by security agencies leads to them feeling angry. Given the wide gap between the rich and the poor, young people see the differences between their lives and those of the elite, rich or connected. While others attend good schools and are provided jobs, they struggle to survive, are cheated by employers and harassed by the state.

Indeed being automatically judged as potential threats can heighten feelings of frustration and alienation. As Ms. Toogood said, “It makes them constantly perceived as ‘perpetrators’ by the system and those in power and also the victim at the same time.”

After all, most young people do work. They cannot afford not to. They need to feed themselves and their families. However, working in farming or the informal sector, they are not necessarily engaged in what people view as ‘jobs.’ Despite the money they earn and the hours they work, they themselves say they are ‘unemployed.’

David drives a taxi when he does not ‘have work’ in the hotel service industry in which he gets temporary work. Although he earns money when he drives, he does not consider this as real work. He sees this rather as a short term measure for economic survival. He talked about how this kind of work is looked down upon by family and friends.

As a result of this kind of thinking, young people spend years ‘technically’ unemployed without achieving recognition or status despite substantial contribution to their families and communities.

This gap between aspiration and reality is heightened by the barriers and challenges they face while engaged in these precarious jobs.

For example, despite the employment okada riding creates – revenues for government, income for those engaged in repairs and cheaper cost of trading – okada riders are often viewed as irresponsible, (potential) criminals, earning money only to buy alcohol and drugs. In both Ghana and Nigeria, research found no evidence for the link between okada riding and criminality. However, many places have banned okadas, especially in cities, tarring all riders with the brush of a small minority. Not only has this destroyed the livelihoods of millions of young people and their families across Africa but it has added to the transport costs of those now struggling to afford alternative forms of transportation.

Street traders and hawkers too have been instrumental to economic growth, particularly that of cities across the continent. In recent times, more young people have joined the older women who make up the majority of traders. However, they too complain of challenges: evictions, ongoing harassment, abuse of authority and extortion. According to David, “you need to know how to avoid the police but sometimes, you just cannot escape and get caught.”

By seeing young people as threats, we fail to see these realities.

The youth necessitates violence narrative also means that ‘youth’ becomes shorthand for ‘young able-bodied men’. All the programmes and politicians focusing on trying to create jobs for them often ignore the marginalisation and disenfranchisement young women and young people with disabilities experience.

After all, frustration with inequality and difficulties providing for families are reasons young women as well as young men join armed groups. In recent months, women’s involvement in Jama’atu Ahlis Sunnah Lida’awati Wal Jihad (JAS), commonly known as Boko Haram, has hit the headlines due to the number of women carrying out suicide attacks. This is just one example of the ways in which women play direct and indirect roles in all conflicts, from taking part in the violence themselves to encouraging others to do so.

Ms. Jerry talked of the anger that builds up when a young person with disability sees others getting opportunities that are blocked to them because of their disability. They notice others looking at their disability first rather than their skills or expertise and what they can contribute. “A youth in that situation will become angry. And when they get angry, they become violent. In some situations, you can’t blame them. They have been marginalised. They have been left out for way too long,” she explained.

She told me of an incident where community members were shocked that a person with a disability was among those who committed violence. “When he was asked why he did that, he said he wanted to prove a point. ‘They think I can’t kill. They think I can’t carry a gun? Well, let me prove to them.’ He had been marginalised for too long and he needed to do something” she said.

People also often fail to see the realities of young men in context. In many contexts, being ‘a man’ means providing for families, being married and generous with the community. Achieving these signs is often hard, particularly in contexts of corruption, inequality and marginalisation. Although these routes to manhood may be blocked, the pressures on young men do not decrease. Many young men are trapped in places where they are no longer ‘children’ but they are not ‘adults’ either. Violence may be seen as a source of addressing this frustration to gain respect and be seen as ‘a man.’

An un-interrogated narrative ignores these structural factors. It also shifts responsibility from the powerful and influential in society, including governments, and displaces it to the vulnerable. After all, it is older, richer men that send the young and poor to die in their battles for power and supremacy. Young people may be the majority in many countries but are on the fringes of society. They are low in societal hierarchies compared to their elders – but they see these same people who they are expected to respect taking opportunities meant for them for their own ends.

James is studying part time while he works so he can support his family now and provide better in the future. His wife has just given birth to their second child. “It’s not the youth, it’s the rich men,” he said. “Look at my community. For the last year, people have not been living there because of the conflict. The politicians sponsor the fighting because they want control over the oil that is there.”

The panic around ‘idle youth’ blames young people for violence rather than seeing the needs and interests invested in their mobilization. It also ignores the reality that not all young people are violent. Many of them work for peace and the development of their communities.

Mariya collects food and clothing from people in her community to distribute to those who have been internally displaced due to violence. She has been doing this for the last two years. She said, “They live in our community. I have to do whatever I can to help them.” She also solves disputes, acting as an informal mediator, and reaches out to girls who have experienced violence.

Chukwuma has just started a computing center in his town. It is a place where people can come to surf the internet or learn how to use a computer. He runs classes free of cost for children, making a particular effort to reach out to those from poorer families. He tells me about his excitement in doing this work, knowing the potential of computing skills to create opportunities for young people in today’s technological world.

Mariya and Chukwuma are working for the wellbeing of their communities. They help people learn and live in peace. People seldom think of those like them – or like David and James – when they think of youth.

Trying to prevent violence by focusing on youth unemployment treats the symptom not the cause. It stigmatises and scapegoats young people, further adding to their marginalisation. Evidently, even employing all youth would not necessarily curtail violence if fundamental issues of inequality and injustice remain unaddressed.

Preventing young people from choosing violence requires addressing difficult issues. These include improving security, creating meaningful educational and employment opportunities, rooting out corruption and tackling prejudice. Taking action on these areas is much more difficult than simply creating jobs, but it is also much more effective.

After all, an angry man (or woman) may be more likely to be involved in violence – but it’s not hunger alone that makes people angry.