Over the past year, sustained military offensives by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force and the Somali government may have dealt a devastating blow to al-Shabaab, the Al-Qaeda-linked militant group that had controlled much of southern Somalia since late 2008. Recent elections that brought educator and activist Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to power have even ushered in hope that Somalia, long-considered the world’s most failed state, might finally be on the path to peace.
However, until the country finds a way to integrate and empower a generation of Somalis that has known only conflict, experts warn Somalia will remain fertile ground for youth recruitment and radicalization by terrorist and criminal organizations.
Young Somalis remain especially vulnerable to marginalization and exclusion, with severely limited access to education and employment. “The few who are being educated today may attend institutions that indoctrinate them into Islamic fundamentalism,” says the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). Meanwhile, Somalia’s youth unemployment rate is an astounding 67 percent.
Somali youth also play a role in perpetuating the country’s decades-long crisis. “Youth are major actors in the conflict, constituting the bulk of the participants in militias and criminal gangs, including al-Shabaab,” says the UNDP 2012 Somalia Human Development Report. “Lost opportunities, unclear identity and a growing sense of marginalization among youth in an environment of state collapse, violent conflict and economic decline provide fertile ground for youth radicalization.”
Al-Shabaab’s recruiters seize on this vulnerability, targeting youth from 12 to 22 years old. According to reporters from the region, many are forced into al-Shabaab’s ranks or indoctrinated at an early age. Others are lured by promises of money, firearms and phones with al-Shabaab recruiting young jobless Muslims in Somalia and northeastern Kenya. According to one study, al-Shabaab recruits could expect $50 to $150 per month.
But experts insist that the quest for financial gain is neither the only consideration nor the primary factor rendering unemployed youth vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups. For disaffected and jobless young people in search of avenues for influence in society, self-affirmation and recognition by their peers, joining an extremist group or criminal organization can be an attractive and empowering option.
“There may be some youths who join violent extremist organizations ‘just for the money,’ but they must be a very small number,” says Dr. Benjamin P. Nickels, Assistant Professor of Transnational Threats and Counter-Terrorism at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS). “Even in those cases, there is always more going on—if only because the money itself means more than just purchasing power; it means status, access, authority, and so on.”
Revenge is another motivation. For young Somalis resentful of alleged abuses by Somali’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) or foreign forces and AMISOM troops supporting the TFG, joining al-Shabaab could be a path to vengeance. For example, a Human Rights Watch report on war crimes in Somalia noted widespread accusations of human rights abuses by al-Shabaab, including public beheadings and flogging, but the report added that populations in areas controlled by the TFG its allies also have been subjected to human rights violations, including “arbitrary arrest and detention, restrictions on free speech and assembly, and indiscriminate attacks harming civilians.”
“Al-Shabaab’s future depends on its ability to find new members,” participants at an Africa Center Workshop on Preventing Youth Radicalization in East Africa warned in January 2012. “The group is searching for young recruits in many places, including among East Africa’s Somali diaspora communities and non-Somali youth.”
Indeed, a July 2011 UN investigation found that al-Shabaab maintained extensive funding, recruitment and training networks in neighboring Kenya, prompting Kenya’s military intervention in Somalia and a crackdown on suspected al-Shabaab supporters in the country’s northeastern coastal region.
But despite some important successes, Kenya’s military campaign in Somalia and its crackdown at home have often instilled resentment amongst young Muslims living in the country, providing ammunition to extremists bent on recruiting and radicalizing Kenyan youth.
Riots broke out in late August 2012 after word spread that Aboud Rogo, a Kenyan Muslim cleric accused by Kenyan and U.S. authorities of supporting al-Shabaab, had been shot and killed by unidentified gunmen in Mombasa. Kenyan authorities insisted that the violence—which lasted nearly a week and left at least five dead—was incited by a radical cleric close to Rogo, a claim denied by many of the Mombasa’s young Muslim residents.
“Incited? I don’t need to be incited to riot when I have eyes to see my sheikh has been killed by the government,” one 25-year-old Rogo-supporter, Otieno Ramadhan, said in an interview with Reuters.
Although it remains unclear whether the violence was organized by extremists or represented spontaneous outrage, it appeared that beneath the anger about the assassination lies resentment amongst many young Kenyan Muslims about marginalization.
“We youth from the coast don’t have anything to show, no jobs—yet other people get employed daily at the port,” Ramadhan told Reuters. “All they have brought us here is drugs to kill us slowly. I will riot. They can shoot us dead if they wish.”
Young and Restive
The plight of Somali youth may be particularly severe, but it is certainly not unique. Across the continent, youth vulnerability and exclusion are the norm, not the exception—and there are mounting concerns about the radicalization and recruitment of youth by terrorist and criminal organizations.
Colossal youth unemployment rates provide a glimpse into the extent of the problem. With 200 million people between 15- and 24-years-old, Africa has the world’s youngest population. According to the African Economic Outlook, youth unemployment rates are twice as high as adult unemployment in most of Africa—60 percent of Africa’s unemployed are young people. Worse, the continent’s youth population continues to swell, and African economies are not creating enough jobs to keep pace.
The African Development Bank has highlighted the correlation between high rates of youth unemployment and escalating crime and violence. “When young men and women fail to find productive, decent livelihoods, they can become socially excluded and enter a cycle of poverty, often leading to crime, violence, and drug trafficking,” the African Development Bank said in a 2011 report. “Failure to create sufficient job opportunities to match the increase in the working age population may result in rising unemployment, potentially increased crime rates and political instability.”
Criminals, terrorists, and repressive governments alike recruit and radicalize unsuspecting young people. According to Human Rights Watch, “militant groups find ready recruits in the vast cadre of Nigeria’s unemployed youth.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon raised concerns in January 2012 about recruitment of unemployed youth by terrorists and criminals in Libya. In Zimbabwe, state-sponsored “youth militias” have been widely cited as perpetrators of human rights violations during bouts of violence following elections in 2003 and 2008. The list goes on.
Youth unemployment has even caused concern in Africa’s most vibrant democracies. One 2011 study concluded that youth unemployment is a “major catalyst of instability” in Ghana. Another report described youth unemployment as a “ticking time bomb” in terms of socioeconomic and political stability in South Africa. The situation is even worse in fragile and conflict-affected states. In a 2011World Bank survey conducted in six countries and territories affected by violence, nearly half of respondents cited youth unemployment as the primary factor motivating young people to join criminal gangs or rebel movements.
Not all youth unrest should be considered criminal. It was largely unemployed young people who sparked the uprisings that ousted authoritarian regimes in North Africa—and many see sub-Saharan Africa’s youthful population, too, as a potential catalyst for positive political change. “Africa’s youthful and better educated population is restive for more transparency from public officials and expanded livelihood opportunities,” noted a November 2011 ACSS Special Report. “These youth are increasingly aware of governance norms elsewhere in the world and yearn for the same basic rights in their societies.”
Africa’s youth also have shown the potential to be a potent economic force. Not only are they key drivers of growth through participation in the labor force, they are at the forefront of innovation and the proliferation of information and communications technology.
A 2009 landmark study on youth vulnerability and exclusion in West Africa by the Conflict, Security and Development Group (CSDG) found that “Youth exclusion and vulnerability do not lead to violent outcomes where mediating institutions channel youth energies into collaborative and productive activities.” Unfortunately, such mediating institutions are lacking in many parts of Africa and an environment of exclusion prevails. “Traditional structural impediments continue to limit the participation of youth in politics, inhibit their representation in local and national decision-making processes, and encourage their resort to unorthodox means of influence, including political violence, rebellion and thuggery,” the CSDG study found.
Young entrepreneurs also face major obstacles to securing start-up finance because they lack credit history and collateral. This is especially true in the informal economy, where many governments are taking steps to limit business activities because the informal economies often are unregulated, yield little tax revenue, and enable criminal activities. But, according to the World Bank, youth are more likely than adults to work in the informal sector, so such crackdowns disproportionately affect young people.
A Wake-up Call?
Historically, African governments’ approaches to youth empowerment have been poorly resourced and met with little success. “Current state-led youth programmes are supply driven, unresponsive and short lived, and do not target, leverage or upscale the successful and durable initiatives of the private and voluntary sectors,” notes the 2009 CSDG report.
According to Kate Almquist Knopf, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development and an Adjunct Fellow at ACSS, African government agencies with the responsibility for youth empowerment often lack the resources necessary to fulfill their mandate. “In Africa, Youth Ministries often have the longest name but the smallest budget,” says Knopf, referring to the fact that these ministries often are responsible for youth, sports and culture. Knopf insists that youth-centric programming should not be confined to a single ministry but rather integrated into the mandates of a wide range of government departments.
But the role of youth in the Arab Spring uprisings as well as a wave of youth protests across the continent has captured African leaders’ attention. At a July 2011 African Union Summit, African leaders committed themselves to creating quality employment opportunities for young people. More recently, the October 2012 International Economic Forum on Africa—a high-level summit on economic development issues—focused on promoting youth employment. Elsewhere, governments have launched highly-publicized initiatives aimed at motivating and recognizing young entrepreneurs.
Whether or not these high-profile discussions will translate to sustained commitment remains uncertain—and experts stress that empowering Africa’s youth must involve more than just creating jobs.
“It is not simply about money—subsidizing young people without providing them meaningful work and giving them a stake in society is a recipe for trouble,” says the Africa Center’s Professor Nickels. “Responses need to address marginalization and its varied manifestations.”
While no single institution is fully equipped to tackle the challenges of youth empowerment and counter-radicalization, a myriad of civil society organizations across the continent are dedicated to empowering Africa’s most vulnerable young people through education, job training, and mentorship. Sanejo, a Rwandan non-governmental organization, supports communities transiting from war to peace or facing abject poverty by promoting education. A USAID-funded program called Shaqodoon—Somali for “job seeker”—provides thousands of young Somalis with training for market-driven employment opportunities. The Mombasa-based Kenya Community Support Centre (KECOSCE) even runs a program aimed at building “a stronger more resilient youth community committed to rejecting radicalization.”
“Civil society organizations form a first line of defense against violent extremist organizations,” noted participants in the January 2012 ACSS Workshop on Preventing Youth Radicalization. “The challenge for governments is to create space for and, when possible, to encourage the myriad interactions that occur between civil society groups and East African youth.”
Still, governments appear to have a crucial role to play—especially in fragile or conflict affected states. In the case of Somalia, for example, the UNDP urges authorities to remove policy and institutional barriers that perpetuate the exclusion and marginalization of youth.
But the UNDP also stresses that youth are not merely an obstacle to peace; they can be a powerful, positive force in the country’s transition.
“The potential of youth as positive agents of change and key actors in peace and development is barely recognized and rarely cultivated, even though youth around the world on many occasions have demonstrated their ability to act as peacebuilders and social and economic actors,” notes the report. “Engaging youth in peacebuilding efforts can help address their feelings of fear, isolation, hopelessness and stigmatization, and in turn, contributes to the overall security of the community.”