The Role Of Youth In Peace And Conflict In Africa

On December 9th, 2015, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted one of the most ground-breaking resolutions in its history; UNSCR 2250 (2015) recognized the need for youths to play an “important and positive role in the maintenance and promotion of international peace security.” UNSCR resolution 2250 identified five key areas in which youth should be involved in; participation, protection, prevention, partnerships and disengagement and reintegration. The much-needed declaration urged member States to create spaces in which youth can voice their concerns, challenges, their grassroots and/or national achievements. 

UNSCR 2250 (2015) is an important resolution for the African continent. This resolution forces African leaders, as well as the African Union (AU), to rethink the incorporation of youth in peace building processes and other domestic issues. This is critical as youth make up the majority of the population in every African country. African youth make up 19% (226 million) of the global population and analysts predict that the percentage is supposed to double by 2030. Additionally, the resolution challenges the conventional wisdom that undervalues the importance of youth by framing them as inexperienced and lacking wisdom.

Furthermore, UNSCR 2250 (2015) challenges the most prevalent narrative in many African countries where youths are either ‘infantilized’ or ‘demonized.’ This means that youth are either viewed as ‘victims, vulnerable and powerless’ or as ‘violent and perpetrators of conflict.’ Time and time again, media sources and academic journals mainly focus on the use of primarily male youths as weapons of conflict with examples ranging from Revolutionary United Force (RUF) in Sierra Leone, to al-Shabaab in Somalia to M-23 in DRC. Omeje’s 2006 case study shows that youth were perpetrators of 90-95 percent of violence in Nigeria. These same media sources also showcase the exploitation of the youths by politicians during election periods in various African countries.

The growing frustration among the youth throughout the continent can no longer be ignored by the political elite. The youth are tired of the stagnant climate where they lack opportunities to progress economically, socially, and politically. These youths are also fighting for inclusivity of youth in decision-making processes. The role of youth in the #rhodesmustfall, #feesmustfall and voicing their frustration with corruption in South Africa is a clear example of the youth-led movements to change the current status quo in African countries. Therefore, the inclusion of youth in decision-making processes is critical since the alternative, as Daniel Agbiboa eloquently states, will “expose huge deficits in democratic governance, exacerbate generational tension and present an enormous risk for sustainable peace and development.”

If engaged positively and incorporated into the peace building processes, African youth can be key actors in the reduction of violence, improvement of security and countering violent extremism. Although this author recognized that youth engage in violence, either willingly or forcefully, this author maintains that it is equally as important to address and expose how African youths are actively exhibiting the five key pillars mentioned in UNSCR 2250 (2015).

One of the countries that have embraced the role of youth in grassroots peace building initiatives is Central African Republic (CAR). CAR has experienced sporadic episodes of violence with the most recent one pitting the Seleka rebels against the anti-Balaka armed rebels. In a country where more than 70 percent of the population is under the age of 35, youth are both been perpetrators of conflicts and agents of peace. To address the deteriorating security measures, Birds of Peace aims to use “education as a way to spread peace among the young people of CAR.” This organization, which is founded by a human rights activist and school teacher, uses the school teachers to raise awareness among the youth about nonviolence practices. The organization focuses on the use of traditional methods of communication – storytelling and drawing. According to the founder, Birds of Peace provides a cathartic environment for youth to express their views about how they have been impacted by the conflict. Additionally, the organization offers training to other peace building organizations who desperately require workshops that deal with capacity building and pedagogy of conflict transformation.

Community policing is another method in which African youth are contributing to the protection of their communities, which is one of the pillars of UNSCR resolution 2250. In countries such as Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan where communities face constant threats from active armed groups, the youth have banded together to protect their villages. These youths either engage directly with the armed group or improve civilian-military relations by providing intelligence. Although community policing efforts have saved countless lives, their existence raises two major concerns. One, their mere existence makes them targets which leads to loss of lives, as witnessed in Nigeria and South Sudan. Secondly, the creation of an armed community policing group does not guarantee that the youths will remain agents for protection and turn against with community if enticed to join the armed groups.

Some youths in Kadil Region in Northern Mali have embraced the ‘Economic approach to peace building.’ As stated UN Guiding Principles on Young People’s Participation in Peace building, “young people [are] central to the economic development of their country and promote their access to economic opportunities as essential for their own development.” Kadil Region has been greatly affected by the rise in violent extremism as a result of the presence and competition among three main groups, al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), Islamic State and Ansar Dine. Prior to violent extremism wreaking havoc on Northern Mali, the Tuareg youth constantly voiced their dissatisfaction with the continual neglect of the youth. They had grown tired of the discrimination faced when attempting to benefit from the resources allocated to the youth in the capital city of Bamako. They were angered by the crippling levels of poverty and little government intervention in their own community. To counter the destructive forces, Malian youths in the region embraced their role as active citizens and the spread of democratic processes which values the voices of the disgruntled youths. Additionally, some youth decided to band together to improve their economic status by participating in the informal sector by becoming entrepreneurs. 

In conclusion, it is vital that the narrative regarding African youths move past the binary conceptualization of youth which either infantilizes, or demonizes them. The youth are dynamic individuals who are looking for opportunities to contribute positively towards the success of their respective country. Unfortunately, the youth are suffering from the mismanagement of their country’s resources by politicians who are only interested in enriching themselves and keeping the status quo as it benefits them. Consequently, youth have engaged in violence, either willingly or forcefully.

Although it is important to shed light on the various drivers that lead youth to engage in violence, it is equally important to showcase how youths are also agents for peace. The current classification of youths primarily as perpetrators of conflict or helpless individuals “limits the way in which youths may be understood to contribute towards peace.” The experiences mentioned above demonstrates the diverse ways in which youths have chosen to tackle the issues in their community. They also illustrate that it is possible to combat the negative forces associated with conflict by using simple and widely-available resources without relying on foreign Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Moreover, they reflect the African reality in which many of the case studies showcase grassroots initiatives which beg the question whether government-led youth initiatives are non-existent or limited.

Both local and national governments in Africa must exploit the untapped potential of the youth who much more adapt to combat the ever-evolving realities shaped by the globalization and technology. Therefore, African government must invest in the youths by incorporating them into formal structures of power and developing their capacity to becoming active citizens who challenge the current status quo. It must be understood that this process will not happen overnight, as many developmental goals are framed, but rather this is a gradual process that addresses patterns of thought and behaviour in a transformative manner.

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