To silence Africa’s guns, empower its youth

Last week, Addis Ababa hosted African leaders for the 33rd summit of African heads of state. This year’s event was themed: Silencing the Guns: Creating Conducive Conditions for Africa’s Development.

Amid the armed conflicts, uprisings and insurgencies, it has become imperative for African leaders to review their actions in achieving peace and security on the continent since 2013, when they first made a collective pledge to “not bequeath the burden of conflicts to the next generation of Africans and undertake to end all wars in Africa by 2020”. 

Today, of the 13 peacekeeping missions globally, seven are in Africa. Armed conflicts on the continent being waged in North Africa, the Sahel, the Lake Chad region, West Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region. Some progress has been made in reducing inter-country disputes, but there are growing intra-country conflicts with casualties that match the count in 2013. There are also indications of new conflicts brewing, given the trend in election-related violence and agitations in some parts of the continent. At the current rate and conditions, it will take a miracle to silence the guns in Africa if drastic reforms are not undertaken to make the conditions possible.

Current efforts to silence the guns correctly place emphasis on the prevention of illicit flows of small and light arms into the continent, disarmament, peace building initiatives, mediation and military responses. While these approaches are significant, it is imperative to also prioritise a strong economic push that targets the foot soldiers in conflicts. African leaders must respond with renewed vigour to the needs of citizens, particularly young people, in terms of job creation, employment and improvement in living standards, within a culture of popular democracy and strong institutions. Otherwise, the cycle of conflicts may never end.

Research has shown the prominent role played by young people in armed conflict, unrest and insurgencies. This group is visible on the front lines bearing arms, even when they have little or nothing at stake in the conflict they are involved in. The youth are uniquely vulnerable to recruitment for armed conflicts, and a huge number of young persons are already associated with both state and non-state armed groups. 

It is therefore crucial to make this group a focal point of any intervention. Any strategy without the active involvement of the youth is at best a long shot to meaningful resolution. In a system where the population of young people have decent employment, the chances of arm-bearing or conflict-stirring becomes too costly. This is why African youth must, as a matter of strategy and urgency, be brought to the forefront of silencing the guns.

If, as projected, Africa’s population is set to double to 2.5-billion by 2050, with more than 60% being youth, it is terrifying to think of the level of chaos that could result if they are not profitably employed. In a bid to harness the demographic dividend that could arise from a large productive workforce, prioritising job creation and youth employment becomes the fundamental step to prevent disaster. Urgent steps must include:

  • Commitment to, and promotion of job creation: This must include modernising agriculture, promoting entrepreneurship, increasing access to finance, reducing bottlenecks for business operations, government patronising youth-led enterprises, improving the matching of supply and demand for skilled labour in fragile states and ensuring the implementation of the African Free Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). The AfCFTA is a game-changer for accelerating progress on agricultural transformation and employment creation. 
  • Active and meaningful youth empowerment: This would involve significant policy changes as well as enforcing laws that end all forms of discrimination against youth and women, providing a platform for intergenerational dialogues on development and security issues, and ensuring that social safety nets systems reach at least half of the most vulnerable youth.
  • Improved access to education and learning outcomes: This must involve partnership with the private sector to scale up programmes that enrol young people, improve their learning outcomes and match the needs of the job market through more and better investments in education. This should also ensure children and young adults in conflict regions continue to receive high quality education by supporting local responders with investments in technology enabled delivery platforms. 
  • Periodic reporting of progress on commitments to demographic dividend plans: States must become accountable in reporting progress on their demographic dividend plans. African leaders must make result-driven reviews and track progress for the purpose of accountability.

With the exponential growth of the youth demography, the continent is on the brink of what could bring a demographic dividend — but only if the right action is taken right now, by the leaders and torch-bearers on the continent. 

Edwin Ikhuoria is the interim executive director for Africa for the ONE Campaign, a global movement aiming to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030

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