Africa is currently experiencing unprecedented population growth, characterized in part by a booming youth demographic. “Youth”—defined by the African Union’s African Youth Charter as individuals between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five—today constitute roughly three-fifths of Africa’s total population. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 there will be 2.5 billion people in Africa; in another fifty years that number is expected to grow to 4.4 billion, nearly forty percent of the world’s population. Surely this transformation resonates deeply within Africa, but how does growth of this magnitude and demographic make-up impact Africa’s peacebuilding agenda?
This special issue provides a snapshot of the peace and conflict nexus in Africa through a youth-focused lens. Specifically, it examines the challenges and opportunities of Africa’s rapidly expanding youth population, in relation to the continent’s capacity to prevent and resolve violent conflict and build peace. It also highlights how young people can be more fully integrated into peacebuilding processes and debates in a way that benefits, rather than excludes them.
Rosette Sifa Vuninga begins this special issue by discussing youth anti-crime networks in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and the prevailing issues of poverty, unemployment, and poor governance in the region. However, rather than simply writing-off youth as prone to violent conflict due to these circumstances—as much previous scholarship would suggest—she explains how youth in South Kivu are making the most of their situation by becoming active agents of change, using their group involvement to create “employment” for themselves and maintain a sense of peace in their communities.
Just as youth networks have emerged in Bukavu, Ibrahim Bangura writes about how a culture of youth gangs and cliques has formed in the Mano River Basin area, where there currently exists a “negative peace” in the region following years of civil war. He explains how these youth, rather than involving themselves in forms of violent conflict, are actually creating symbols of self and group identification by coming together in local cafés to air their grievances against the political systems that limit their economic and social mobility.
What becomes evident through these two case studies is how palpable the feeling of isolation and marginalization is among youth in Africa today. Both examples of the DRC and the Mano River Basin area demonstrate the need for governments—especially those in post-conflict settings—to constructively engage youth at the local level, involve them directly in decision-making processes, and prioritize their needs, in order for a positive peace to emerge.
Daniel Lumonya pushes this point further by focusing on the challenges youth face today in their mobilization and resistance efforts, particularly against elite misrule and repression. His perspective shows that, while youth constitute the largest single social category in Africa, their future remains precarious at best. Yet in referencing these structural and historical disadvantages, he also offers prospects for youth to mobilize with other marginalized groups, who similarly seek emancipation from the elite structures and exclusionary policies that bind them.
These analyses raise further questions: How can governments be more transparent with, and inclusive of, a demographic that is not only growing in size and importance, but also a generation that is acutely aware of, and eager to engage with the world around them? What else can be done to transform Africa’s fast growing youthful population into a force for sustainable peace?
Amr Abdalla stresses the need for policymakers to recognize that youth are potential contributors to peace, rather than passive observers. To illustrate his point, he references the success of the Interfaith Dialogue on Violent Extremism (iDove) project, which uses interfaith mechanisms as an approach to preventing radicalization and violent extremism. The youth involved in iDove, he explains, are actually placed “in the driver’s seat” of peacebuilding and play a central role in deliberating and coming up with contemporary recommendations and actions for how to prevent violent extremism.
Similarly, Golda Keng highlights the benefit of having youth directly involved in peacebuilding processes and practices. She does this by first unpacking the existing threats to peace and security in relation to the youth bulge, both in conflict-ridden and relatively stable regions in Africa. She then discusses the extent to which Africa’s population boom could affect peacebuilding trends and actions in the future, noting whether—and how—the African continent can reap a demographic dividend from its youth in order to support sustainable peace at the global, national, and local levels.
Bearing the above in mind, it becomes clear that while laudable gains have been made in the field of African peacebuilding, there is still much to be done. As populations expand, so must Africa’s peacebuilding agenda to include youth and place them at the center of policy and debate. One can no longer talk about building peace or a sustainable Africa without involving youth and prioritizing their needs, hopes, and visions for a prosperous future. For it is these voices and ideas that will ultimately shape the continent’s economic, political, social, and security landscapes in the years to come.
I invite you to join in this conversation.
The articles in this special issue include:
1. Transforming Youth Anti-Crime Networks into Job Opportunities in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, by Rosette Sifa Vuninga
2. A Call for Constructive Engagement: Youth, Violence, and Peacebuilding in the Mano River Basin Area, by Ibrahim Bangura
3. Obstacles to, and Prospects for Youth Mobilization and Emancipation in Africa, by Daniel Lumonya
4. Interfaith Dialogue on Violent Extremism: Putting Youth in the Driver’s Seat! by Amr Abdalla
5. New Threats to Africa’s Peace and Security: Reflections on the Role of Youth in Preventing Conflicts and Building Sustainable Peace, by Golda Keng