The original version of “Governance, Security, and Culture: Assessing Africa’s Youth Bulge,” by Marc Sommers, first appeared in the International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Vol. 5 (2), 2011.
Although Africa has a youth-dominated population
, African government policies are often not youth-centered and African governments and their international supporters are frequently under-informed about the priorities of most youth
. Reliance on the “youth bulge and instability thesis” leads to distorted assessments of everyday realities. Examination of the lives, priorities, and cultural contexts of African youth, and the cases of youth in Rwanda and Burundi in particular, shows that the nature of relations between the state and massive populations of young, marginalized, and alienated citizens directly impacts the governance, security, and development prospects of African nations.
Learning from Liberia
If ever there was a youth-dominated conflict in modern times, it was Liberia’s long and grueling civil war (1989-1996 and again in 2000-2003). Ignited by Charles Taylor’s Christmas Eve incursion from neighboring Côte d’Ivoire late in 1989, together with perhaps one hundred other men, the conflict soon took the form of youth-led chaos. “What initially was seen as a revolution…fought with sticks and cutlasses,” Mats Utas writes, “was eventually transformed into a war of terror where young people started fighting each other” (2005: 55). In fact, some youth continued to view the war as their revolution, for as long as they were able to take advantage of the opportunity that armed conflict afforded. The civil war provided them with “a chance to become someone in a national system that had marginalized them, but also a chance to get rid of the load of work and expectations that the parental generation had laid on them” (65). Some of the more successful young soldiers, sometimes goaded by their girlfriends, “felt so affluent that they could wash their cars in beer – a beverage most could not even afford to drink prior to the war – and that they could drive a car until it ran out of gasoline and then just dump it for another one” (66). The result was a war that wreaked colossal destruction. By 1997, civil war had already left a nation of perhaps two and a half million with up to 200,000 dead, 700,000 refugees, and much of the remaining population internally displaced (Utas 2008: 113).
The region of sub-Saharan Africa has the most youthful population in the world. Of the 46 countries and territories where at least 70 percent of the population is under the age of 30, only seven are not in sub-Saharan Africa. With this in mind, one of the most striking aspects of contemporary Africa is how male African youth have so frequently been viewed as threats to their own societies. However, the view from below differs dramatically from the largely quantitative analyses from above and from outside the continent. Again, the Liberian example is illuminating. A nation long renowned for grasping leaders and withered government institutions has more recently provided truly upbeat signs of forward movement. That said, most youth continue to be left far, far behind. Fieldwork in rural Liberia uncovered a widespread fear of “rebel behavior youth” – youth who had assumed the attitudes of wartime combatants and became socially sidelined. Liberia’s post-war youth unemployment has been estimated at the astonishing rate of 88 percent. Taking all of this into account – a widespread sense of estrangement and social distance felt by many youth and an economic recovery that is passing most of them by – one could certainly argue that Liberian youth are among the world’s most peaceful populations.
Continue reading in the International Journal of Conflict and Violence.
Marc Sommers is a fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Africa Program and visiting researcher at Boston University’s African Studies Center.
Sources: Government of Liberia, Population Action International, Sommers (2007), Utas (2005 and 2008).
Photo Credit: “RPF rally in Gicumbi, Rwanda,” courtesy of flickr user noodlepie (Graham Holliday).