“Our world is in trouble. People are hurting and angry. They see insecurity rising, inequality growing, conflict spreading and climate changing…societies are fragmented. Political discourse is polarized. Trust within and among countries is being driven down by those who demonize and divide.”
Institute of Peace and Security Studies Studies
The excerpts above from a November 2017 speech by UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, highlighted the challenge of preventing, as much as managing violent conflict and building peace in today’s world. It also underscores the diffused nature of violence and violent conflicts; it is never restricted to particular regions or countries, rather, they manifest in various locations where the structural conditions and vacuums are rife. To this extent violent conflict and other peace and security challenges are not peculiar to Africa but are themselves a product of structural weaknesses – structural vulnerabilities are the reasons for violent conflicts and insecurity in Africa. The structural conditions include socio-economic and political inequality, lack of good governance, widespread injustice, absence of peace education and a culture of peace, dysfunctional gender norms, and vulnerability to multiple risks such as climate change and natural disasters, etc. Significantly, those structural conditions provide the appropriate background to understanding and assessing Africa’s peace and security trends in 2017, and across time and period.
The incidence of armed conflicts and violence in 2017 differ across Africa in terms of the trigger issues, actors and overall dynamic. However, they reflect similarity of underlying root causes linked to structural weaknesses such as the youth bulge, environmental stresses, poor governance, and the mismanagement of ethno-religious diversity. These have degenerated due to a number of enabling factors particularly access to arms and the propensity by groups to mobilize a wide range of self-help strategies.
So far, the continent’s youth bulge in which young people under 24 years are more than 40% of adult population is proving to be a challenge, rather than an opportunity, for most countries. According to figures from the UNFPA shown in Table 2.0 below, African states have the highest rate of youth bulge with the highest proportion of population within the age brackets of 0-14 and 10-24 years compared with the global average, and twice the global average for fertility rate. It is estimated that Africa would therefore produce an additional 53% to the global population by 2050, thereby intensifying the ‘youthening’ of the continent.
Despite the opportunities that youth bulge avail, the continent seems to be witnessing negative outcomes as indicated by the sheer number of young people involved in militias, gangster and cult groups, and violent protests. Indeed, youth bulge has been transformed into a security challenge thus far due to high unemployment and under-employment, limited social mobility, easy access to small arms and light weapons, subsisting inter-group animosities, etc. It should not be difficult to understand why most African countries experiencing different forms of conflicts; the notable ones including Ethiopia, Mali, CAR, DRC, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, and Tunisia, are also those with the highest number of youth and incidences of youth unemployment. For instance, the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) assessment of the Human and Economic Cost of Conflict in the Horn of Africa highlights the scale of youth unemployment (with implications for the risk of participation in violence) in Ethiopia and Sudan to be 27% and 22%, respectively, and youth constitute 70% of total unemployed population in Kenya.
Africa’s youth challenge transcends unemployment and under-employment to also include exclusion and marginalization from formal processes of decision-making. In spite of their numerical strength, the ratios of youth involved in elected and unelected positions of authority remain limited.23 A recent Afrobarometer Survey in 36 African countries found political engagement (voting) to be lower among youth (65%) compared with adults (79%); young Africans are less likely than their elders to participate in civic activities; and young women’s participation in civic activities was 9% less compared with their male counterparts. Expectedly, youth in Africa had higher levels of participation in protests and demonstrations relative to elders.24 Youth’s participation in a variety of violent incidents has to be understood against this background – as expressions of their agency to transform their individual and collective circumstances and those of their societies. The combination of socio-economic deprivations and socio-political exclusion informs the nexus of youth bulge and peace and security challenges in Africa.
The second crosscutting structural issue is the rise in the scale and intensity of environmental stresses associated with the effects of climate change and limited adaptive capacities across Africa. Much of the African continent is experiencing harsh environmental change related to degraded soils, water resources, and biodiversity, and extreme and unusual weather conditions. Such stresses amplify pressures on already fragile ecosystems, exacerbating the failure by governments to provide sufficient food and water to populations.25 It is not a coincidence that many fragile and conflict-affected countries in Africa are the very same experiencing acute food insecurity, and also producing the most forced migrants. Moreover, environmental stresses remain a direct factor in several violent conflicts especially in and around the Sahel forcing affected population to take extreme measures in competing for scarce resources.
Third is poor governance that often manifests in the gross mismanagement of scarce resources (corruption and economic decline), loss of trust in public institutions, political repression and authoritarian rule, violations of human rights, and attempts to manipulate elections or change constitutional term limits. For instance, a survey of 36 African countries in 2015 indicates that citizens generally trusted informal religious and traditional institutions and leaders far more than formal executive agencies of the state. The legislature and electoral bodies were least trusted by citizens. The lack of instructional trust is directly related to perceptions and realities of corruption, and this limits citizens’ engagement and contributions to socio-economic developmental aspirations.26 Where any of these have occurred, they typically trigger mass protests, rebellions, and other violent reactions. According to the US National Intelligence Council Global Trends Report (2017), denationalization and alienation arising from disconnection from sociocultural mainstream; the inability to participate in the political process; diminished opportunities for marriage or the inability to attain perceived ‘deserved’ socio-economic benefits and status will remain consistent sources of grievance-driven violence in years to come.
The fourth issue is that a growing number of countries are demonstrating lack of political will or policy capacity to effectively manage diversities, be it ethnic, religious or political. This often manifests in real or perceived horizontal (inter-group) and vertical (among households and individuals) inequalities, especially along ethno-national and religious identities. The absence of all-inclusive models of political representation and participation (or the undermining of such even where the framework exists), and the general lack of tact in the management of extremely delicate diversity issues have conditioned widespread feelings of alienation. In most cases, this has undercut the legitimacy of governments and state institutions at the same time that they increase real or perceived inter-group inequality. This underlies violent events in countries such as Burundi, Cameroon, CAR, DRC, Egypt, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Sudan, and South Sudan.
Fifth is the growing tendency or propensity towards self-help mobilisations by groups and communities to guarantee their physical safety, socio-economic survival, political representation, and cultural survival. Some of the prominent expressions of this include the proliferation of communal militias, defence forces, vigilantes, and warrior sects. The challenge is that self-help mechanisms have increasingly filled the spaces created by the absence and/or de-legitimisation of governments and state institutions. In other cases, they are quickly co-opted by governments seeking to sundry certain ends, for good or bad. Not unexpectedly, the rise in self-help mobilisations has contributed to the rise in and viciousness of violence and armed conflicts across Africa in 2017 and in previous years.
Sixth are enabling factors specifically linked to the availability and easy access to illicit small arms and light weapons that quickly transform mundane disagreements, grievances, and tensions into violent and deadly affairs. It is estimated that there are over 100 million illicit SALW in circulation in Africa.28 It is true that SALW do not cause armed conflict per se, however they are important ‘game changers’ that embolden belligerent groups to turn grievances into violent and deadly episodes. Perhaps with the exception of mass protests, it is hard to imagine any conflict situation without substantial use of SALW in Africa.
The final structural weakness is the global geo-strategic and political-economy context that continues to shape and influence the nature of threats and challenges, and opportunities for conflict prevention and management in Africa. Africa’s socio-economic vulnerabilities can hardly be divorced from the nature of its insertion and location in the global political-economy calculus, especially the processes of resources extraction. As indicated in 2016 SPSA Report, natural resources in terms of its ownership, extraction and receipts remain a factor in most conflict contexts in Africa. Moreover, the advent and increasing spread of transnational threats such violent extremism, organized crime, cyber insecurities, and pandemics underscore how Africa’s peace and security landscape, including structural vulnerabilities, are a function of global dynamic.