A youth’s perception of human security in Africa

Air Drop of Humanitarian Aid Delivery to Port au Prince, Haiti

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The promotion of durable and sustained peace, socio-economic development and good governance have emerged as the most pressing and recalcitrant challenges facing Africa, particularly vivid in the final decade of the last millennium.

Armed conflicts littered the continent, with 31 countries witnessing intense violence triggered by political or socio-economic disaffection in some sections of these countries’ polities and societies. A pervasive and non-violent threat to the existence of individuals is posed by HIV/AIDS, as the virus significantly shortens life expectancy, undermines quality of life and limits participation in income generating activities. The political, social and economic consequences are similarly detrimental to the community, in turn undermining security.


Changing weather conditions are reducing the ability to produce and distribute food. The most direct implications will be felt in agricultural losses and rising food prices which will undermine access to food for those who depend on markets for their consumption needs. This could result in about 200 million Africans being threatened by malnutrition and abject hunger.

The crops produced for exports face an embargo, with harsh trade policies slapped on importation from developing countries by the developed world, in a bid to plunge the developing world in to more slavery.

The advent of democracy across the African panorama heralds a show of ill-preparedness for the structures of democracy which now results in complex humanitarian emergencies and crises.

The crumble of colonialism in Africa caused decomposed ethnic lines and city-state allegiances to bear cracks of insecurity and ill-preparedness for the glory and worship of urbanization, independence and civilization. This resulted in weaknesses in the state-centric concept of security, regarding development, human rights, peace and good governance. Thus, whether it concerned civil wars with their dramatic consequences; natural disasters and accidents; or health crises and major pandemics, populations have faced life threatening dangers.

Even though the security of state sovereignty is paramount in these circumstances, the protection and later, empowerment of people at individual and community levels – human security – has been labeled as essential to national and international security.

Inter-ethnic conflicts, regional instability, poverty, disease and bad governance shape the meaning and content of security today. The preamble of the United Nations Charter opens with the words “we the peoples of the United Nations, [are] determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, to indicate that the issues of peace and security, as well as economic and social progress and human rights, were – and to a large extent still are – seen as matters within the purview of individual states, their territories and their institutions.

Today though, the definition of what constitutes and what influences human security is changing. Freedom from want and freedom from fear are increasingly yearned for. Additionally, ethnic conflicts, regional instability and terrorist attacks have forcefully demonstrated that the state is not the sole actor in providing, or detracting from security. National borders are permeable, and national sovereignty is no longer sufficient justification to avoid international scrutiny and action.

In essence, human security now means safety for people from both violent and non-violent threats. It is a state of being, characterized by freedom from pervasive threats to people’s rights, their safety and their lives. It is an alternative way of seeing the world, taking people as its point of reference, rather than focusing exclusively on the security or territory of governments. Like other security concepts, such as national security, economic security, food security, and job security, it is about protection. Human security entails taking preventive measures to reduce vulnerability and minimize risk, and taking remedial action when prevention fails.

In 2000, 189 governments reached one of the great decisions of recent centuries, agreeing to work together to end extreme poverty, and to do it within 15 years. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set specific targets – on education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, disease and environmental sustainability – to protect the most vulnerable people, and empower them, thus providing them with human security. Eight years on, these targets seem unattainable. Every day that passes in Africa, more mothers are losing their children to malaria, a mosquito bite, diarrhea, or an upset stomach. Africa is struggling to record progress in child mortality.


While the key triggers and causes of Africa’s woes and upheavals may differ from country to country, what is common to all of them is the central involvement of Africa’s youth, either as perpetrators, victims or both. As Alex de Waal, a writer and researcher on African issues puts it, “children and youth represent the possibility of either an exit from Africa’s current predicament or an intensification of that predicament”.

Youth are an increasingly compelling subject for study in Africa, entering into political space in highly complex ways. To pay attention to youth is to pay close attention to the topology of the social landscape – to power and agency; public, national and domestic spaces and identities, and their articulation and disjunctures. It is to note history and sense of change, globalization and governance, gender and class.


People who might be considered “youth” form an increasing proportion of the African population. Indeed, defined as any person between the ages of 15 and 24, the African youth is expected to constitute 15% of total global youth population by 2015, thanks to the continent’s average annual population growth of 2.7% and fertility rates of 5.1% over the past 30 years. This means that 62% or 654 million of the continent’s approximately 906 million people are under the age of 24. Furthermore, analysts deduce that only 5% of Africa’s population are aged 60 years and above – a reverse of the aging trend in most developed countries. This phenomenon is exponential, but imbalanced growth in youth population is what some have described as a “youth bulge” - a situation in which young adults aged 15-29 make up at least 40% of a country’s population.

Youth today have become the focus of rapid shifts in post colonial and global economy and society. In the “occult economies” of Africa, the potency of youth is extracted to sustain the power of those in authority while young people themselves feel increasingly unable to gain from the promises of the new economy and society. In Niger in May 2000, a crisis of promise and frustration prompted secondary school students to riot, burning tires and barricading streets, protesting a shortened school year and the prospects of failing exams.

In Sierra Leone in June 2008, a report on the spate of violence linked to inter-school sporting events revealed schoolchildren were smuggling weapons like knives, razor blades and bottles into the national stadium, where most of the competitions take place. Most of these schoolchildren were found to be those recruited during the civil war, and still carried weapons. On the whole, critics continue to label Africa’s youth bulge as the major culprit for its travails and woes.

However, it is useful to note that it is only a tiny proportion of Africa’s youth population that have been involved in armed conflict, the spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and other insecurities. The majority, which rejects violence, would perhaps be better appreciated if judged against the backdrop of the frustrations caused by failed and disrupted provision of public services, education and economic opportunities. These problems have been compounded by infantilization of youths by traditional elites, exploitation by business elites and marginalization by political elites.

Those who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS, would perhaps be better appreciated if public enlightenment, education and sensitization were taken seriously, condoms were made readily available and affordable, antiretroviral drugs were provided for infected people appropriately, and stigmatization was thoroughly cut out from the society.

Further, the uphill struggle of youths is made treacherous by the compelling incentives provided by rebel leaders to join armed groups. Bribes are doled out by top public office holders to try and buy the suffrage of youths, in order to remain in power and loot the public treasury.

Still more is inflicted upon youths. The force applied to become embroiled in prostitution – either through trafficking, rights abuse or parental consent – is strong. The sex trade is often seen as a means of assuaging the natural human need for economic survival, self-preservation and empowerment, social relevance and belonging.

Current trends across Africa indicate a deepening and intensification of the cycle of poverty and economic malaise which began in the 1970s. Furthermore, increasing marginalization of large sections (principally youth) of the population from the mainstream socio-economic and political sphere has created a sense of social dislocation, and in some cases, strong disaffection, amongst youth.

Put together, these elements culminate in economic pressures and social tensions which often conflagrate into full-blown conflicts. The threats of Africa’s youth bulge on the one hand, and opportunities and potentials that this bulge represents on the other, have left sections of the continent’s now vulnerable societies and governments uncertain as to how to respond.

While opportunities abound for this bulge, the threats issued to them presently pitch Africa’s youth in a precariously vulnerable position. Political marginalization, unemployment, urbanization and rural-urban migration, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and poor education all threaten the development of younger generations. In the advent of legislation, inadequate action beckons and where action sets in, there is inadequate legislation. Indecision and uncertainty seem to be hindering the coupling of action and legislation.

One of the enduring failures of the post-independence nation building project across Africa has been the shrinking of the public space. Limited opportunities for civic engagement and the increased marginalization of a majority of Africa’s vulnerable populations has prevented many from participating effectively in governance and political processes.

This is ironic considering the euphoria of the collective fight against colonization and the subsequent victory of independence, which led to the ascendency of the majority of Africa’s post-independence ruling elites to the heights of political leadership in their youthful years. The irony lies in the reality that though it was the youth who spearheaded and fought for decolonization and against repression in several African countries, some of these same youth leaders would later be involved in the suppression and exclusion of youth from mainstream participation in the political arena. Clear examples are stories of the late Dr. Hasting Kamuzu Banda, the erstwhile dictator of Malawi; Paul Biya, ‘Life’ President of Cameroon; and Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe.

The era of post colonial governance in Africa has witnessed increases in the systematic exclusion and marginalization of youth from decision-making and political processes at national and local levels across parts of Africa. A vivid example is a study carried out by The Conflict, Security and Development Group in Nigeria which identified that,

“The minimum age for becoming a lawmaker at the state level and the Lower Chamber (House of Representatives) at the national level has been raised from 21 and 25 in 1979 and 1989, to 30 years in 2005, while that of a senator (Upper Chamber at National Law-making Chamber) has been raised from 25 to 35 years. Unsurprisingly, there is no single member of the Senate who is under 35 years of age, and the average structure of senators (2003-2007) shows that people aged 45-55 years form the core with 44% of the 109-member Chamber, followed by those between 36 and 40 years (17.2)%. Similarly, in the National House of Representatives, of the total 360 members, only five are under 35 years of age (all male), and people aged 41 to 51 years form the core (59%), followed by those under 40 years of age – 23% (but mostly within age 35-40 years) and those aged 52 years and above (15%). The average age in the House of Representatives is 45 years. The current state of affairs reflects deterioration in youth participation over time given that in 1993, 52.4% of members were between age 30 and 40 years, and this dropped to 46% in 1999 and 23% in 2005.”

The implications of the continued exclusion of youth from decision-making processes, both social and political portends ominous consequences as have been starkly displayed in countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Nigeria’s Niger Delta region. The challenge is to prevent fragmentation, marginalization and polarization. Individuals in our societies are being traumatized and fragmented in different ways, and large groups are being excluded from the benefits of production.

The aim must be to generate co-existence at least so that every community in each society and nation can join together to produce higher levels of social cohesion. The requirement of social cohesion, on which societies and human security depend, is nonetheless being constantly undermined by the uncontrolled and uncontrollable pursuits of states.

The marginalization of youth transcends the political scene and extends to other major facets of decision-making and participation in mainstream society across Africa. For example, there are very few cases in which the Youth Ministry and the Youth Budget have been administered by youths themselves. This neglect has also been translated in to a recurring cycle of unemployment, underemployment and unemployability.

The United Nations' 2005 World Youth Report noted that 60.7 million and 102.1 million youth in Africa live under $1 and $2 respectively, with over 40 million under-nourished young people aged 15 to 24. These figures are further exacerbated by high-levels of youth unemployment, with access to education still a problem for many young people. Higher educational attainment does not guarantee a path to finding employment and where shrinking employment is rampant, job security often overrules job satisfaction as a motivator for young employees. This is made even worse by the problems of urbanization and rural-urban migration.

Across Africa, it has been observed that dysfunctional urbanization has generated three troubling consequences. Firstly, social frictions and strains among members of similar and different ethnic groups in the competition for political influence and limited socio-economic opportunities and resources has intensified. This often leads to inter-group conflict, often entered around age-old ethnic and religious divides.

Nigeria offers an insightful example of urban conflict with over 100 cases of inter-group clashes occurring between 1999 and 2005, mostly in cities such as Lagos, Kano, Kaduna, Bauchi, Jos and Warri.

The second consequence relates to the upsurge in crime, especially juvenile delinquency, in major cities which is largely due to the influx of unskilled youth migrants from rural areas. The intense competition for limited economic opportunities and the skills needed to gain urban employment mean that youth migrants are more likely to join the underground criminal networks that abound in urban areas, in a bid for survival.

Aside from getting involved in perennial turf wars between rival gangs, youth migrants especially those aged 16 to 29 years are likely to take to petty thieving, substance abuse or rape. For young girls, there is more intensive exploitation of their labour, their sexuality and their socio-economic vulnerability. They are often forcibly involved, or have no option but to resort to prostitution which increases their vulnerability to HIV/AIDS.

The dangers only increase for young girls in conflict zones, where they are often abducted, sexually abused and forced to become ‘wives’ of rebels, often becoming impregnated and subsequently discarded by the rebels, reducing their opportunities for social re-integration and economic viability. After the cessation of hostilities, many are left with both mental and physical scars and long term health problems due to severe sexual abuse, rape and gang rape.

A third consequence is the multiplier effect of diseases and infections arising from over-crowding and congestion, poor sanitary conditions and limited access to health care. With an alarming share of 60% of the world’s people living with HIV/AIDS, a huge number dying of tuberculosis and one child death per minute cause by malaria, health remains a big issue in Africa.

By 2006, a reported 1.7 million people were dying of AIDS annually, and more than 9 million children had lost one or both parents to AIDS in Africa. Immense intervention has curbed and reduced prevalence in such places as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda but Swaziland and Lesotho still record some of the highest prevalence rates in the world, while war zones like Darfur, Somalia and the Eastern region of Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, remain high risk areas with sexual abuse and rape used as weapons of war.

While it must be noted that the spread of HIV/AIDS appears to be slowing down in Africa, thanks to increasing involvement of governments and civil society groups in awareness and enlightenment campaigns, the HIV/AIDS scourge still presents serious immediate and long-term consequences for Africa’s youth.

There are worries about the sheer loss of human capital, especially among the youth population, who have been identified as the “most-at-risk” group, given their vulnerability as well as their relative tendency to engage in risky sexual behavior. As well as the tragic losses inflicted upon families, the impact of losing over 2 million people to HIV/AIDS annually can have long-term consequences for the supply and quality of skilled youth in the private, public and civic sectors.

Families are torn apart by HIV/AIDS with over 15 million orphans scattered across Africa. Many young people have to now take on the additional burden of becoming heads of households, catering for their siblings in an already pressured and austere economic environment.

Finally, another problem relates to the acute lack of capacity to adequately address the HIV pandemic, highlighted by the inability to provide adequate antiretroviral drugs for most youth in affected regions.

Decisive and fast measures have become hugely important in reducing the effects of HIV/AIDS in Africa. Education has proven to be a key medium for prevention of the spread of HIV/AIDS. Its effects on maternal and child health have been rewarding – education is correlated with improved reproductive health, reduced infant mortality and improved child nutrition. Education increases creativity, and makes it easier for job-seekers to find gainful employment. Notably, it helps people living with HIV/AIDS live ‘responsibly’; it enlightens societies on the dangers of stigmatization, warns young people on the dangers of having unprotected sex, and discourages medical personnel from transfusing unscreened blood. This is perhaps the reason why the Millennium Development Goal number two, is to achieve universal basic education with its third indicator as “literacy rate of 15-24 year-olds”. Education can be useful in resolving conflicts, and building peace. It encourages debate and dissent, and may discourage many from resorting to violence or crime.

Education is the process of enlarging people’s choices to live longer and healthier lives, to have access to knowledge, to have access to income and assets, and enjoy a decent standard of living. Basic literacy and numeracy can make a significant difference, as they provide a certain amount of independence from the calculations of others. Education enables people to make informed decisions. It builds and strengthens democracy by arousing interest and increasing participation through better understanding of issues.

People are better able to articulate and protect their rights when they are educated, and knowledge builds confidence to affirm one’s rights. Education enlightens individuals and communities so they can aim to achieve goals and seek changes when necessary.

Youth literacy rates have generally improved in recent decades, increasing from 66.8% in 1990 to 76.8% in 2002. However, this is still not good enough.

Several factors account for the relatively low educational attainment in Africa. Education and schooling is still tied to socio-economic circumstances, and progress in education remains badly affected by poverty. Education is under-funded. Educational infrastructure, equipment and books, not to mention computers, are either limited in supply or simply unavailable. Moreover, there are also critical challenges associated with aligning school curricula to the particular needs and future development aspirations of particular African countries, as well as the need to match the rapid expansion in the number of literate young people with corresponding economic growth rates, capable of absorbing the new, future outputs.

Education can help cut the high rate of unemployment, and it can solve the problems of unemployability, making underemployment a thing of the past. If youth get adequate education and literacy rates improve, the number of empowered minds armed with creative ideas which can be invested in the various needs and development aspirations of their countries will increase. The youth will no longer wait for their governments to create jobs. Indeed, skilled and competent youth would fill vacancies in the public service, but more would be empowered to become entrepreneurs, owners of their own businesses, and employers of labor. With good educational systems, the problems of marginalization, of fragmentation, and of polarization will begin to die out, ushering in an atmosphere of sustained socio-economic, political and cultural development.

Advancing human security requires a broader range of analysis than achieving the MDGs, but the subject of human security has never yet been as fully articulated in terms of goals, targets and measurable indicators. The burgeoning body of work on the MDGs can therefore be helpful to future efforts to clarify and measure steps towards greater human security. We may need the MDGs as a time-line with which to hold our governments accountable but we also need to ask much of ourselves and to hold ourselves responsible.

The African Peer Review Mechanism initiated by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, is being freely accepted by African governments as it forms a key part of long-term conditions for sustainable peace and security. By ensuring good and democratic governance and respect for private enterprise, nations will be enabling poor people to access up-to-the-minute information, money and business expertise, as well as creating new commercial and employment opportunities. By opening Africa to big companies in a Business Call To Action motive, initiatives from these and other companies will save almost half a million lives, create thousands of jobs, and benefit millions of people across Africa.

In the race to achieve the MDGs, one of the greatest untapped resources is the private sector. Businesses must reach beyond traditional business practices to focus on the needs of those locked out of the global market and also show concern for the vulnerabilities of the African youth in the ever evolving platform of global business.

Growth and prosperity is the objective, not aid – the purpose of aid is to create a climate in which it is not longer required. We must acknowledge the African youth as innovative, resilient, hard working and persevering. They exhibit high-levels of ingenuity and coping mechanisms in very volatile and insecure environments where lack of human security thwarts goals and aspirations. Young Africans face countless challenges but the continent’s future is in their hands.

By: Kolo Kenneth Kadiri

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