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Youth Unemployment and the Fight Against Terrorism in West Africa

By Gertrude Adwoa Offeibea Ansaaku

Youth unemployment is a major driver of terrorism. An African Development Bank study examining youth unemployment in 24 developing countries over 30 years concludes that this economic factor plays a significant role in a nation’s risk of political instability. Insecure environments, then, become ripe for terrorism. The 2006 U.N. Global Counter-terrorism Strategy and the 2015 Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism both acknowledge that poverty and youth unemployment make the spread of violent extremism easier. Without jobs, violent extremist organizations can be an attractive source of income, and countries that fail to create employment opportunities for young people witness more incidents perpetrated by these groups. To counter this trend, the U.N. plan prescribes youth empowerment through involvement in decision-making, mentorship programs, and entrepreneurial support, as well as improved education, skills development, and employment facilitation.

In West Africa, implementing these measures could mitigate the dangers of terrorism. The region has been a hotbed of political instability and insecurity since independence from European colonial rule. Terrorism in particular has gained momentum. There are presently two major terrorist groups: Boko Haram, which operates in northern Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger; and Ansar Dine, which is based in northern Mali and operates in the Sahel. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), originally from North Africa, is also visibly present in the region, as are some splinter groups and other small armed groups. Most draw their strength from disaffected, unemployed, and destitute youth; one study indicated that the median age of Boko Haram members is 30 years old.

The 16 countries of West Africa have large and rapidly growing youth populations. Over 50 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is between 18 and 35. This number is even higher in many West African countries. According to the CIA World Factbook, about 56 percent of Ghana’s population is below age 25, and in Nigeria and Mali, this figure rises to about 62 percent and 66 percent respectively. Niger’s under-25 population constitutes a staggering 68 percent. Large proportions of these populations are unemployed and struggle to make ends meet. Across West Africa, national economies are about 70 percent agrarian, with a majority of farmers operating only at subsistence levels.

Unemployed youth in West Africa are often those drawn to violent extremism, as unemployment and poverty can make young people dissatisfied with their national governments. These disgruntled youth might choose to engage in terrorism to communicate their discontent. This is the case in northern Mali, where the 2012 rebellion—the fourth since independence in 1960—arose from widespread frustration with the deprivation and marginalization of that part of the country. Feelings of resentment were made worse by the government’s unfulfilled promises to resolve the issues that sparked earlier rebellions. Although tensions appear to have abated now, terrorist activities are still ongoing. Processes to address the people’s concerns are slow, while terrorist networks and resource-sharing with foreign groups such as AQIM are thriving.

Addressing this problem will require collaboration between national governments, international organizations and development partners, and domestic private sectors.

Human security is a necessary component of counter-terrorism approaches. It requires creating the political, social, environmental, economic, military, and cultural systems necessary for people’s survival and dignity. Poverty and unemployment must be addressed to guarantee economic security. However, counter-terrorism efforts in West Africa typically involve armed combat and are more reactive than preventive. Measures such as job creation, on the other hand, can stem the growth of terror outfits before they become a threat.

Bridging the development gaps within countries would help diffuse the anger and frustration of youth living in deprived regions. Ghana, Nigeria, and Mali all have striking divides between a disadvantaged north and a more prosperous south. This problem could be solved by reviving defunct local industries and channelling foreign direct investment to such areas. Northern Nigeria was bustling with meat and leatherworks until oil was discovered in the south in the mid-1970s. Many of these businesses collapsed when the government’s attention shifted to oil, rendering most residents jobless. Ghana also had a vibrant textile industry, but some companies were recently shut down amid declining profits. With the right policies in place, such industries could be revamped to absorb some of the unemployed youth.

Once more jobs are available, young people must be prepared to take on work. School curricula should be tailored to the needs of the job market and local industries. About 50 percent of university graduates in Africa are unemployed, partly because most do not have skills related to planning, organization, or technology after graduation. Students can acquire practical experience through attachments and internships before they complete their studies.

Support for local entrepreneurship through financing and tax cuts could help young people create their own employment opportunities, too. But once they are created, institutions and legal frameworks will be needed to regulate these new ventures. In Ghana, some have raised concerns recently about the legality of commercial motor bike, mobile money transfer, and small-scale mining businesses, all of which have many young employees. Instead of banning these businesses, though, institutions and laws can ensure they do not operate in harmful ways.

Countries with aging populations—among them Japan, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland—should also implement policy changes that allow them to take in young people from other countries. This can be done through increased educational scholarships and changing regulations to facilitate job recruitment in the receiving countries.

Left unaddressed, youth unemployment in West Africa will continue to give rise to disaffection and potential radicalization. Terrorism poses a grave threat to international peace and security, but following these steps to help young people find jobs would minimize the danger.

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Gertrude Adwoa Offeibea Ansaaku is a PhD student in international affairs at LECIAD, University of Ghana, Legon, and a Yale Fox International Fellow, 2016-2017.

[Photo courtesy of The United States Marine Corps

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