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The Social Malaise of Unemployment in Africa

Solomon is a freelancer and an academic with diverse scholarly interests in Language, Literature, politics, and social issues

This article will explore how youth unemployment in Africa results in political instability.

This article will explore how youth unemployment in Africa results in political instability.

The Social Malaise of Unemployment in Africa

Historically, the insecurity caused by youth unemployment in Africa has resulted in instability on the continent. These conflicts are characterised by the way they created Africa’s security narrative in the early 1990s, which was centered around mass killings in the Great Lakes region and other parts of Africa, contemporary jihadist revivalism manifesting through the activities of AQMI in the Sahel, Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in the Horn of Africa. The fact that unemployed youth are not only victims but also active participants in political instability is not new.

This article explores two questions: What is the relationship between unemployment in Africa and social cohesion? Are increases in unemployment a predisposition to a country's political instability? In attempting to answer these questions, I hope to contribute to an understanding of the complex connections and intervening variables that determine unemployment in Africa and how these connections result in the propensity for political instability.

It's not surprisingly that marginalized populations in Africa would rise up to fight for access to resources and opportunity.

It's not surprisingly that marginalized populations in Africa would rise up to fight for access to resources and opportunity.

Youth and Political Instability

There is a fundamental challenge in adequately establishing the link between unemployment trends and the role of youth in political instability (particularly in Africa) with any certainty. Despite anecdotal evidence, there are still questions as to why the same levels of unemployment in any two given contexts on the continent are not necessarily a determinant of instability. And if it is a determinant for instability, there's no easy way of knowing to what degree unemployment will cause instability from region to region.

Consequently, despite the popular involvement of unemployed youth in political demonstrations and the subsequent international commitment to find lasting solutions to the phenomenon, on a global scale, there is still inadequate appreciation of the fact that worsening unemployment trends among the youth of any African country represents a danger of that country becoming insecure. Youth unemployment must be adequately prioritised in national and global policy making, because it is a key component in the effort to alleviate poverty.

Compared to other parts of the world, Africa remains a relatively young continent. The median age is about 19 years old and is only expected to reach about 25 years old in 2046. As such, young people will continue to constitute about half of the population of most countries on the continent over the next three to five decades.

An Undercurrent of Systematic Marginalisation

Within Africa, incompetence at many levels of governance and a failure to develop employment directed policies has created an undercurrent of systematic marginalisation. The rate of unemployment among young people points to the broader lack of equitable distribution of resources and marginalisation within the context of complex horizontal and vertical inequalities in African countries.

Even where an appreciable number of employment opportunities exist, these are often outpaced by the youth population. Quality of employment among young people is usually at a lower rate than the adult employment rate. Therefore, high levels of poverty exist among young Africans (even though most need to support their families and work for survival). Consequently, the percentage of working poor in sub-Saharan Africa is higher among young people. According to the ILO, "Given the high poverty levels and high share of vulnerable employment, youth employment in Sub-Saharan Africa is as much a qualitative as a quantitative problem."[2]

The result is pressure on unemployed young people to demonstrate their economic relevance against a backdrop of dwindling opportunities, corruption, and fast-pace trends towards modernisation. Meanwhile, their social inclusion is challenged and threatened by lavish materialisation and the rising individualism of conservative African societies.

Social structures and the state are questioned in the desperate quest for survival in the midst of crushing dynamic demographic stresses, such as rapid urban population growth, increasing numbers of young people, and diminishing resources, particularly land.

When we you have nothing to lose we're more likely to join rebellious groups.

When we you have nothing to lose we're more likely to join rebellious groups.

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Demographic Stresses: Disaffected Youth

In some countries, unemployment has led to high rates of disaffected youth (whose perceptions of the future are bleak). In others, the strive for opportunities in urban areas has led to the ruralisation of urban spaces through the rapid expansion of urban and peri-urban slums in places such as Korogocho, Kibera, and Mathare Valley (in Nairobi), Sodom and Gomorrah (in Accra), Makoko (in Lagos), and the many other slums dotted around the cities of Africa. Apart from the challenge to governance, such settlements easily become a haven for social vices. They are often seen as no-go areas for law enforcement.

Demographic Stresses: Double Desperadoes

In the above context, many African countries have had to grapple with double desperadoes—unemployed young people who are both (a) desperate for opportunities that promise a better life and so are (b) vulnerable to recruitment by individuals and groups who promise such deliverables. Together with other social realities, vulnerable youth populations have become easy recruits for crime, rebel militias, political gangs, and extremist networks. Two factors explain this:

1. Access to the Centre of the State

First, in their quest for access to the centre of the state, where resources, power, and privileges exist, many have fallen prey to patronizing networks that usually operate to support political elites and economic heavyweights. Many are easily swayed into becoming foot soldiers for local activists, who manipulate them into undermining political processes (as became evident in the 2007—2008 post-elections violence in Kenya).

2. Participation in Rebellion

The second factor is that for many double desperadoes, participation in any rebellion most generally emerges from the juxtaposition between what can be lost and what can be gained. Given the fact that unemployed young people have nothing to lose, the cost of their recruitment into conflict is low, thereby increasing their propensity to contribute to political instability, collective violence, crime, and conflicts. In fact, in many African communities, double desperadoes will not lose any substantial material benefits should a civil conflict break out. Rather, the breakdown of the rule of law and the chaos associated with conflict present criminal elements with an opportunity to support themselves by looting, robbing, and exploiting natural resources in collusion with transnational organised criminals.

During the complex political emergencies that characterised West Africa in the 1990s (the Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Côte d’Ivoire conflicts), these factors made it easy for warlords to exploit unemployed young people as soldiers. Young people comprised about 95% of the fighting forces and were mostly recruited from the gang networks made up of young adult desperadoes in the many slum communities.

In 2005, sixty former West African combatants were interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Crippling poverty and hopelessness were identified as the fundamental factors that made them vulnerable to participation in armed rebellion. Many of them recounted the extent to which they battled daily against abject poverty and the traumatic struggle for daily survival caused by a lack of access to resources. Given the difficult present, unpredictable future, and unlikely fulfillment of their dreams, many of them thought that going to war was their best option for survival. In recent times, the Arab Spring in North Africa has shown us that when young people are politically excluded and economically marginalised, their proclivity to revolt cannot be contained by any measure of tough state response.

More and more evidence is starting to show the links between unemployment and political violence.

More and more evidence is starting to show the links between unemployment and political violence.

Unemployment Creates Political Instability

The two variables make the phenomenon of unemployed youth a red flag for political instability in Africa. Where these variables encounter popular mobilisation through religious indoctrination, radicalisation, political polarisation, or ethnic manipulation, destabilisation and political instability are sure to emerge. The Mungiki sect and other criminal groups in Kenya, the Al-Shabaab Islamist militants in the Horn of Africa, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Mujao and Ansar Dine in Northern Mali are all examples of where high unemployment has resulted in increased violence. For many years, a similar situation made it easy for armed militias in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region to recruit the many soldiers who would go onto wreak havoc against the government's economic interests.

Among other things, worsening unemployment trends are an important measure of inept leadership and the general lack of good governance. Growing levels of unemployment are a precursor to the many conflicts and political instabilities on the continent.

Thus, it is important that international and national responses to the phenomenon are adequately securitised in order to rally the necessary resources to address the phenomenon both in an effort to achieve political stabilisation and as a response to the development needs of many African countries.


  1. International Labor Organization

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Akpensongun solomon

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