The dangers associated with the youth unemployment crisis in Africa have often been linked to political violence and civil unrest, with some experts referring the current situation on the continent as a “ticking time bomb.” A World Bank survey in 2011 showed that roughly forty percent of those who joined rebel movements claim they were motivated in part by a lack of jobs.

This piece pushes the debate further by examining the present situation in Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where lack of formal employment opportunities for educated youth has been a major source of illegal, and often dangerous activities. However, ironically, these activities have offered a sense of stability for many youth in an otherwise unstable region.

One such example includes the youth gang known as Fin d’heures, “Final Hours” (FH), which has committed armed robbery, rape, and regularly beaten, harassed, and intimidated residents. In response, frustrated by the amount of insecurity in their community caused by FH and the insufficient police response, a local vigilante group emerged in the Essence district of the city known as the Jeunes Essence Forces Vives, “Essence Youth Strong Force” (EFV), which suppressed the FH gang between 2008 and 2010. The self-styled anti-crime youth mob took equally radical measures against FH including public executions, burnings and beating criminals to death.

Despite their extreme tactics, many people soon began supporting the EFV’s reprisals against FH. Between 2009 and 2010, the EFV gained a lot of recognition within the community and from the media. Even though they were from poor families and often unemployed, youth in the EFV would patrol their neighborhood in the late hours of the night using their own resources, without any support from wealthy community members.

Eventually they changed from being a vigilante group to an association sans but lucratif, “not-for-profit organization.” With the support of religious and civil society organizations, they eventually opened numerous offices in the neighborhood where most of them lived. They also switched their modus operandi from capturing and punishing criminals, to helping victims of robbery and mugging retrieve their stolen goods. In this way, youth in Bukavu can be seen as creating “employment” for themselves.

Their activities have also been inspired by local and international non-governmental organization (NGO) workers, who are widely viewed as benefiting from the war economy since they deal directly with issues related to the mineral and arms trade, health institutions (mainly those known for treating raped women), and rehabilitation centers, including prisons. 1 Without war, many of these organizations would shut down. Though some Bukavu residents—including elders and other youth (especially the educated ones)—still sometimes criticize the new and more moderate methods adopted by the EFV, their actions are largely seen as contributing to the overall peace of the city. This is because the group directly addresses citizens’ feelings of exclusion from governmental and non-governmental structures. This interpretation of the status quo has led to not only an expansion of crime among urban youth of various backgrounds, but also what seems to be a tolerance for, and “normalization” of violence. As youth groups feed on each other’s criminal activities, eradication has been replaced by sustainability.

Youth who are involved in these networks could acquire financial autonomy and selfhood if they had proper jobs in the formal economy. But as the main city becomes overcrowded and insecurity mounts in rural areas where militias and rebels dwell, creating jobs to accommodate the multitude of youth—even those who are college educated—in sectors such as tourism, agriculture, and nature conservation, for example, remains almost impossible. In addition, most youth today operate under the mindset of débrouillez-vous pour vivre, “sort yourselves out to stay alive,” a term coined by Congolese citizens during former President Mobutu’s kleptocratic regime, which helps explain the corruption and poor state of public services in the DRC today. 2 Youth in Bukavu have grown up with the idea of expecting close to nothing from the government, and therefore justify their actions as contributing to their sense of autonomy.

This reflection is not meant to imply that youth networks in Bukavu are destined to be corrupt. Indeed, there are ways of encouraging new youth networks of peace, as well as fixing the old ones. One suggestion is for local and international NGOs to give sustainable financial support to youth organizations like the EFV so they can at least afford basic needs while serving their community. This will allow youth networks to turn their services into valid sources of income, rather than participate in illicit activities. In addition, both the local and national governments should encourage cooperation between these youth networks, rather than competition. They can do so by helping to organize local meetings, thus giving youth the space to share their grievances with officials and discuss more avenues for collaboration and integration into decision-making processes.

  1. Jackson, Stephen, and Claire Médard, “Nos richesses sont pillées! Économies de guerre et rumeurs de crime au Kivu,” Politique Africaine 4 (2001): 117-135.
  2. Trefon, Theodore, “Forest Governance in Congo: Corruption Rules?” U4 Brief (2011), no. 17.