Rewriting the rule book

Rewriting the rule book

Omoyele Sowore Photo: ‘Fisayo Soyombo

With every new election cycle, Nigeria is inching closer to producing its own Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau. That hope is fuelled by the confidence with which the younger generation are aspiring to the highest Nigerian office.

A quick run through of the names and ages of candidates currently campaigning to take President Muhammadu Buhari’s job in 2019 is illustrative: Omoyele Sowore (47), Fela Durotoye (46), Thomas-Wilson Ikubese (47), Enyinnaya Nnaemeka Nwosu (40), Ahmed Buhari (40), Charles Udeogaranya (46), Mathias Tsado (41), Eniola Ojajuni (39), Olu James Omosule (48) and Tope Fasua (47).

Although there are some individuals in their fifties or sixties in the mix, the lineup of youth in the presidential race is heartwarming. Nigeria is a country where age — rather than such values as competence, moral presence or strength of character — often forms the main basis of respect. But youth are no longer the leaders of tomorrow; in Nigeria, young people want to be the leaders of today. And it appears they’re well on course.

Taiwo George, the 34-year-old editor of TheCable, Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, puts this down to a “rising youth consciousness to quit the blame game”. Now, young people want to influence political events from the centre. “Nigerian youth are becoming conscious of their role in politics,” He told Africa in Fact. “Unlike before, when they screamed from the sidelines, now they’re actively involved … They’re entering the political arena to contest, and they’re involved in advocacy as well.”

The call for change is gaining momentum. Next year, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest the presidential election. Similarly, 30-year-olds will be eligible to contest some of the 36 state governorship seats on offer; 30-year-olds can now be senators, while 25-year-olds can win seats in the Federal House of Representatives and the state houses of assembly.

The age limits for these positions, in the order in which they have been listed, used to be 40, 35, 30, 25, 25. But in 2016, a coalition of youth groups united together to launch the “Not Too Young To Run” campaign — based on the principle that anyone who, at 18, isn’t too young to vote shouldn’t be too young to be voted for. An ambitious, if not audacious, target indeed. Yet considerable progress has been made. With 25-year-olds now eligible to seek legislative office, it is only a matter of time before the 18-year-old target is met as well.

After initial opposition from the upper and lower chambers, the “Not Too Young To Run” Bill was passed in July 2017. Two thirds of the 36 state assemblies followed suit in February this year to satisfy the legal requirements for turning the Bill into law. All that’s left is for Buhari to put pen to paper, and the deal is sealed.

In fact, Nigerian youth have always been involved in politics and elections, says ‘Sola Fagorusi, the programmes and media manager of Onelife Initiative, a non-profit organisation aimed at bringing sustainable social change to young people, but now their methods of involvement and the demography involved are changing.

Until recently, it was uneducated youth, largely living in villages or the outskirts of cities, who featured as party agents or aides to politicians, Fagorusi says. “Today, we are seeing youth engage in peer-to-peer mobilisation for voter registration and collection of the permanent voter card.”

An important part of this has been the capacity offered by the Internet, particularly as regards communication. Fagorusi, 35, attributes the success of recent youth campaigns to “the online amphitheatre, where unending conversations (both deep and shallow) about electoral issues are happening”.

The development has even influenced young people’s participation in primary elections, which were previously little more than “intra-party affairs”, he says. “Young people are also now starting political parties. There is the ANRP, for example – a political party by young people embracing both the elite and deprived. Young people in Nigeria today are doing more than just acting as the electoral umpire’s ad-hoc staff; they are claiming a stake simply by seeking positions within the party structure.”

But some young people are urging caution. The expectations created by the Not Too Young To Run excitement must be tempered with patience, says Rotimi Olawale, executive director of Youthhubafrica, a youth-led, non-profit organisation based in Nigeria that advocates education for girls and engaging in policy debates that impacts young people in Africa. Only when presidential assent is secure, he says, can youth truly start dreaming big politically.

“The most defining agenda for young people in Nigeria today is to crash the party,” Olawale says. “The success of this constitution amendment will see a lot of young people take up the challenge to run for office.” Meanwhile, he says the national, youth-led campaign to encourage young people to register to vote” has been “impressive”, and he is also excited by the rise in the number of “unconventional” political parties, which are providing a platform for youth political expression.

Sowore, one of the youngest 2019 presidential aspirants, recently launched an appeal to raise $2 million “via a clean, transparent and open manner to advance our movement and fund our election into the presidency without the interference of godfathers and godmothers”, as he puts it on his page on the site.

Although he started out as a rank outsider in the race to Aso Rock (Nigeria’s presidential villa), Sowore’s ambition to take on the country’s old guard sits well with the youth. Young people are either promoting his gofundme campaign or contributing to it, and by the time of writing in late May this year, some 575 people had contributed over $49,000. The old guard, meanwhile, sometimes lets its guard slip, and this does not go unnoticed. When Communications Minister Adebayo Shittu recently branded the 47-year-old “inconsequential” on live radio, young people leapt to his defence, saying the minister’s comment was “a slight” on the youth population.

A Sowore victory would have huge implications for the federal ruling class. His campaign machinery is manned entirely by young people, and his election would surely usher in a reign of Nigeria’s youngest-ever ruling elite. But even if he does lose, just the fact of his well-supported campaign will give momentum to efforts by young people to take the central political stage.

Nigerian youth no longer want to be the stooges of politicians or to be cannon fodder for them — useful during election time, but expendable once in power. They do not object to being the governed, but their condition for that is that they too can aspire to, and achieve a role in government. In short, Nigerian youth are discontented with their role as political spectators. Now, they aim to be direct players in the political space.

degree in animal science from the University of Ibadan. He was pioneer editor of TheCable (, Nigeria’s third most-followed online newspaper, between April 2014 and January 2017. He is editor of the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). An opinion contributor to Al Jazeera, his writings have been translated into German, French and Arabic. Soyombo has won numerous journalism honours, the latest being the Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Reporting (online category) in December 2017.
Act now or risk losing an entire generation

Act now or risk losing an entire generation

Children from Kuma Garadayat (North Darfur) Image: UNAMID

Africa’s youth employment and education trends are worrying. Over the next few years much of the continent will be affected by two trends, namely continued high levels of unemployment and continuing high fertility rates.

The latter, in particular, will lead to bulging youth populations in many countries around the continent. If not addressed adequately and quickly through appropriate policy actions the result will be disharmony – and possibly much worse – as well as even higher unemployment in the future. Africa’s working age population (those 15 years and older) will pass one billion people by 2030, according to United Nations (UN) statistics. That will be a 45% increase from 2105.

Of the 73 million jobs created in Africa between 2000 and 2008, only 22% were filled by youth, according to statistics from the International Labor Organization (ILO). The rate of unemployment among youth is currently estimated to be double that of adults in most African countries, according to the same study. The African Development Bank said in a 2015 report that creating new jobs and simply lowering the youth unemployment rate to that of adults would lead to an increase in Africa’s GDP of between 10% and 20%.

While the bank did not indicate a time frame, the increase would be significant even over a period of decades. More worrying, though, is that the structural composition of Africa’s labour force is not expected to shift significantly during this period. The African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), an economic policy institute based in Accra, Ghana, has argued that the lack of structural transformation of Africa’s economies could dampen opportunities for long-term economic growth.

A similar scenario may play out for employment in Africa. Unless structural changes emerge that are supported by robust and well-articulated policies, the labour force will neither respond to opportunities created by the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR; see the articles by ‘Gbenga Sesan, Dianna Games and Toby Shapshak in this edition of Africa in Fact), nor meet the needs of Africa’s youthful population.

For example, according to 2017 ILOSTAT data, Africa’s labour sector share in agriculture will decline from 67.5% in 2015 to 61.5% in 2030 for low-income countries. As another example, Africa’s labour sector share in trade and transport will decline from 25.1% in 2015 to 24.3% in 2030 for upper middle-income countries.

These incremental shifts will not allow Africa to capitalise on global trends in employment, which are now mainly driven by technology and innovation. Likewise, 2017 ILOSTAT survey data covering 25 African countries shows a very low labour sector share in manufacturing – only between 6% and 8% of total employment. That share is expected to decrease between 2015 and 2030, just when manufacturing could be driving employment generation.

The troubling labour trends are coupled with poor education outcomes. Last year, the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) calculated that Africa needs to enroll 33 million young people in vocational and training education in secondary schools, whereas there were only four million enrolled in 2012. According to the 2018 World Development Report, Learning to Realise Education’s Promise, fewer than 7% of children in primary school are basically proficient in reading, while just 14% are basically proficient in mathematics.

The report notes a wide range of challenges, including children often suffering from illness or income deprivation. At the same time, teacher absenteeism is a significant challenge, as is the basic education of teachers in many countries. While many African countries certainly do face policy challenges when it comes to youth employment and skills agendas, it is also true that the types of jobs likely to be created over the coming decades may offer significant potential upsides.

For example, according to a working paper by James Bessen in 2016, it is estimated that computer use is associated with a 0.3% rise in overall national employment. Likewise, productivity growth (for example, from enhanced technology and innovation) in an industry tends to generate positive employment spillovers elsewhere in the economy, according to a 2017 study by David Autor and Anna Salomons. A one-unit increase in new automation leads to a 0.2% increase in the employment to population ratio, according to a 2017 article by Katja Mann and Lukas Putterman.

The new economy is also expanding opportunities. For example, online job sites and social networking platforms allow for a more diversified labour market participation, particularly for young women and disadvantaged groups. New jobs are being created that did not exist before, and market-entry space has been created for entrepreneurs – particularly regarding social enterprises. While there are concerns about job losses associated with automation and technology, we feel that the pace of change will likely allow Africa to see a net positive benefit over the medium term.

However, even with strong policy design and implementation, not all sectors will contribute equally to employment growth in Africa. It is likely that a few particular sectors will be the primary economic drivers. The ICT service sector has strong prospects in business process outsourcing (BPO), which is likely to bring more people into the labour markets, including women. Some studies indicate that one in four jobs in the United States have been – or could be – offshore in the future, according to a 2013 working paper by Alan S. Blinder and Alan B. Krueger. Interesting business models for medical services are developing that are increasingly taken offshore to countries such as India, China, the Philippines and South Africa. In India, the BPO industry already employs more than three million workers, 30% of who are women. In the Philippines, BPO employs 2.3% of all workers, according to the World Development Report 2016, Digital Dividends.

A delegate at the youth-led meeting entitled “1 + 4 = 16 Targeting Poverty and Education for Peace” at the UN, 2016 Photo: DPI/UN

Agriculture also has significant potential to provide additional and higher-income jobs for the future, mostly due to high-end technology. Drones are being used for remote sensing, farm equipment is increasingly robotised to improve precision agriculture, and “telephone farming” is enabling city dwellers to farm remotely with access to irrigation, lighting, heating and weather-station data with smart-phone technology. According to a recent report by ACET, Agriculture Powering Africa’s Economic Transition, employment in Africa could be significantly boosted by the development of agricultural value chains, including agro-processing, input manufacturing and agricultural services. These sub-industries could open a host of productive employment opportunities in non-farm sectors.

Many of these jobs are likely to be attractive to Africa’s expanding population of educated youth, most of who do not think of “farming” as an appealing vocation. In the long term, bringing more young people into farming is essential for replacing the ageing traditional smallholders who are now the backbone of African agriculture.

While, according to the ILOSTAT data, the share of jobs in manufacturing will decline over the coming period, it will continue to be an important sector for employment. A few countries, such as Ethiopia, are starting to capitalise on the emerging opportunities in this sector. African manufacturing has traditionally lacked automation to boost productivity and competitiveness. Automation, of course, requires upskilling and improved infrastructure. The existing high-tech infrastructure could be adapted; indeed, in many cases it is only being expanded now, for example, with cellular networks and industrial electricity grids.

Moreover, a 2018 study from Karishma Banga and Dirk Willem te Velde of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) indicates that African countries have a window of opportunity to move into somewhat less automated sectors, where technology installation has been slower. Automation varies greatly across sectors, with automotive and electronics sectors at the forefront while food processing and furniture production lag behind. This provides an opportunity for local and regional focused manufacturing.

Even as these industries become susceptible to automation, the 2018 report by ODI points out that Africa’s lower labour costs mean that African countries will have about a decade or longer to adjust before cost of robots fall enough to replace human labour.

This window should be used to build manufacturing capabilities and a continued focus on improvements in basic infrastructure such as a reliable power supply, telecommunications and roads – combined with a targeted approach to building industrial capabilities.

There are multiple approaches whereby African governments can immediately address the medium-term demand for skills for youth. Capitalising on the so-called “demographic dividend” represented by the high proportion of young people will not be automatic; it will require effective and ongoing policy implementation.

Firstly, Africa’s economies must create sufficient productive jobs, which requires strong and sustained growth. The Brookings Institution (2018) estimates the required economic growth to be in a range of between eight and nine percent. Industrial policies should favour labour intensity. Sectors such as agriculture and agro-processing, infrastructure, wholesale and retail trade, and tourism are particularly good candidates relative to their current growth rates and their economy-wide (infrastructure) or multi-sector (tourism) multiplier effects.

The transformation of the continent’s economies is crucial to ramp up growth. Clearly, governments will need to engage industry much more deeply and constructively than they have in the past. From a demand-side perspective, industry will need to be involved in improving skills quality and in enhancing access to technical and vocational training.

This can be facilitated by establishing skills councils and by industry participation in the quality assurance and assessment of learners. Government/industry collaboration on staff and student internships and training partnerships would be a critical element in this, based on national, regional and global best practice.

Likewise, governments will need to rapidly address regulatory and investment climates to expand job creation for youth. While making it easier to do business and improving the investment climate are important to industrial policy in particular, they are crucial regarding employment more generally.

This is because technologies are new and regulatory authorities, which tend to be conservative and understaffed, may not be nimble enough to develop needed regulations or may create stifling regulation based on poor understanding or unwarranted fears. Kenya, for example, has been at the forefront in creating a regulatory framework conducive to mobile banking, but fairly erratic in the development of drone regulations.

At first, the country banned drones but then it introduced punitive drone regulations, charging exorbitant fees for their use. A recent ACET survey indicates a low level of awareness among policymakers of new technologies and their relevance to creating youth employment opportunities.

However, some governments are taking experimental approaches to help increase understanding. For example, South Africa’s Reserve Bank will allow experimentation with block-chain technology – a secure transaction ledger database that is shared by all parties participating in an established, distributed network of computers – in the banking sector because this will allow the institution to better understand them and thus to devise an appropriate regulatory regime.

Governments will not only need to expand and deepen skills development but focus on quality of skills for youth. Investment is needed in modern competencies for teachers and instructors, as well as updated teaching, learning and training facilities. While there has been some movement toward ICT-supported learning, it is not widely adopted or supported in most African nations. Enhanced cellular and broadband capabilities will enable African countries to leverage existing learning platforms.

But, of course, this will require adequate financing, which cannot be provided only by the public sector. African governments will need to establish dialogues and partnerships with the private sector to jointly finance quality skills development.

Finally, it will be necessary to improve access to – and perceptions of – technical and vocational education training (TVET) for and among Africa’s youth. Currently, perceptions of TVET among African policymakers and youth alike are that it is less prestigious, and less likely to result in improved socio-economic status, than tertiary academic education. TVET is therefore poorly funded, while facilities often do not cater to girls or people with disabilities. Governments need to invest more in understanding the demand for technical skills, and to make formal, concerted efforts to match skills to demand.

Presently, the opportunities are greater than the challenges as regards ensuring that Africa’s young people are provided with the skills that enable them to get jobs and build livelihoods. But all stakeholders will need to work together – and work quickly. In most instances, the required policy actions can be derived from global and regional best practices. That is not to say they are easy; there will be winners and losers. But it is imperative to manage the wins and losses now if we are to avoid losing an entire generation of young people, who are the future of Africa.

ROB FLOYD is an international development executive with broad experience in strategy design and implementation, programme management, and partnerships. Before joining the African Center for Economic Transformation in Washington DC, he worked for more than 20 years at the World Bank Group across multiple regions, sectors and in institutional leadership positions. At ACET, he contributes to a range of strategic initiatives including raising the profile of ACET outside of Africa, fundraising, partnerships and the forward-looking business model.
JULIUS GATUNE is a senior policy advisor at the African Center for Economic Transformation in Washington DC. He has extensive experience in long-term planning. Prior to joining ACET, he worked at McKinsey & Co. Julius has a PhD in policy analysis from the Pardee RAND Graduate School and a Masters in computer science from the University of Cambridge.
From unexpressed anger to participation

From unexpressed anger to participation

The year was 2002 and the location a bank’s training facility in a quiet area of Nairobi. They all came from different countries but had one thing in common: every young woman and man in the room had been able to discuss their ideas concerning youth participation in governance during the previous few weeks. The medium that had enabled this was the Internet.

That meeting of the African Youth Parliament, in October and November of that year, addressed many issues relating to the concerns and interest of Africa’s young people. One aspect of it, however, was hardly noticed at the time. With hindsight, though, it is possible to see the novel role that technology had played in making the meeting happen.

Moreover, it helped the delegates to keep in touch, and has continued to do so as they make an impact in their various countries. Internet access – at least the “plug-and-pray” variety that you had to be patient with back then – was spreading across Africa at the turn of the 21st century. Meanwhile, young Africans wanted to contribute to the democratic politics that was defining their future. The Internet was a useful tool that served that growing need.

Meetings at which young Africans expressed anger at the lack of opportunities to participate in politics were not new, but the chance to connect with people who were not in the same physical space was. It was exciting because the more the conversation progressed, the more it was clear that we shared similar experiences and expectations, and also that we faced the same lack of opportunities.

What had started, often on campuses, as an introduction to a new way of communication was soon woven into the fabric of our burgeoning social networks. Social mobility, which had previously been so glacial, began to unfreeze in Africa between 2007 and 2009, when social networks began to connect people who faced similar issues across the continent. For example, many Nigerians were dissatisfied with formal politics after the flawed 2007 elections, which came to be nicknamed iwuruwuru – a neologism that played on the name of the chairman of the Nigerian Independent National Electoral Commission at the time, Maurice Iwu, and the Yoruba word for “cunning”.

By 2009 that anger was finding expression on social media platforms, including BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), Facebook and others. Young people in particular adopted these tools with enthusiasm. Protests in 2010, triggered by the prolonged absence of a president seeking healthcare overseas and rumours of a power hijack by a “cabal”, saw yet more activism and exchange of information through social media. The 2011 elections saw citizens using tools like ReVoDa, an election-monitoring mobile app, to take action.

Though labeled clicktivists at the time, it was clear that such tools allowed the safety of near anonymity while at the same time providing outlets for angry expression and enabling people to organise action. This is how the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests happened, building on the opportunism of opposition parties and a tired labour movement that needed but lacked the capacity for mass action. Social media have proved useful in connecting angry citizens and amplifying issues through these phases of Nigeria’s democratic experience. In 2013, Nigerian citizens began to stand up for each other in a different way, through various “#SaveCitizen” efforts that saw young people raising funds online for people in health emergency situations, helping to save lives.

When insurrectionist movement Boko Haram abducted 276 girls from Chibok in 2014, #BringBackOurGirls tweets soon began showing up, because people were familiar with the social medium. Government had failed to act and it looked like it would also try to cover up the abduction, but social media gave citizens a way around their apparent helplessness in the face of terrorism and government inaction, and also enabled concrete action.

This trend explains why, in 2015, social media played a major role in the elections that led to the first incumbent president’s loss in Nigeria’s democratic history. Throughout 2016 and 2017, social media continued to play an important role in citizen activism, with public officials being called out and concrete reforms demanded. The new social media involved elements of citizen solidarity and citizen activism – and they enabled calls for measurable action. Similar campaigns have sprung up elsewhere in Africa. In Kenya, for example, the #WhatIsARoad campaign calls attention to roads that need repairs. From Algeria (#Feb12) to Zimbabwe (#ThisFlag), social media campaigns have taken protest to the streets and forced governments to pay (at least some) attention to social ills.

This year, much is happening in the democratic spaces created or enabled by social media. Once confined to the sidelines, young people are participating and demanding more engagement, especially with the aid of technology platforms and tools.

In Nigeria, a group drafted a legislative Bill, nicknamed the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill, to demand reduced qualification ages for citizens wishing to run for political office, including the office of the president. Another youth-led group drafted a Digital Rights and Freedom Bill that has now been passed by both chambers of parliament and now only needs presidential assent. A mobile application that followed a typical path from development to implementation has been used to monitor elections in Nigeria since 2011.

On September 28, 2010, I wrote to 14 young people who I knew had a flair for technology, arguing that we needed “a tech meet up to brainstorm towards 2011”, as I put it to them. I urged them to consider working to help create social media formats that would have popular appeal, and consider wider uses for “tech”. About three weeks later, the group of young people gathered in a function room at the University of Lagos’ Centre for Information Technology and Systems to brainstorm. From that meeting, the idea of a #NigeriaDecides project was born. Working with another youth-led group, Enough is Enough Nigeria – which had emerged from a similar youth, governance and technology intersection – we set up in a conference room at Beni Apartments in Victoria Island, Lagos to develop a new app.

The final product, ReVoDa – a play on “Registered Voter Database” – offered a crowd-sourced opportunity to monitor and report on elections without having to go through the bureaucracy of registration with Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, and it was used by citizens all around the country to monitor the 2011 elections. Technology is opening doors for a new generation of democratic actors because it gives them access to tools that allow people to mobilise effectively. From that beginning in 2011 we have broadened our horizons and we are looking beyond mobilising around occasional elections. A new generation of young people is lighting candles against the darkness of apathy.

New initiatives in social enterprise, business and civic education, among other areas, are coming to the fore, enabled by technology. These initiatives are helping to force governments to get involved in conversations about standards of governance and their implementation. Even the daily actions of government can now be subjected to scrutiny and immediate feedback through technology platforms. Social media are redefining citizen-government interaction.

In April, for instance, Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, answering questions at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London, claimed that many young Nigerians wanted “everything for free” because Nigeria is seen as an oil-rich nation.

The same day he got immediate, critical feedback from young Nigerians through a new hashtag, #LazyNigerianYouths, and the presidency had to release a statement “clarifying” the president’s statements. Internet technology is providing opportunities for citizen engagement with and critique of governments that would have been unthinkable even two decades ago. I have no doubt that it will further shape Africa’s democratic experience over the next few years, and beyond.

‘Gbenga Sesan is the Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative (, a social enterprise that works on Digital Rights and Digital Inclusion in Africa.
Looking for a way out

Looking for a way out

Men in Mogadishu, Somalia, are rounded up by the Somali Police Force to be screened during an operation aimed at improving security in the city . AU UN IST PHOTO/ TOBIN JONES.

Democratic societies are perceived as vulnerable to terrorist acts because their more open and permissive nature offers lower cost opportunities for extremists to carry out terrorist operations. The empirical evidence, however, demonstrates just the opposite: democracies that are responsive to public demands and respect civil liberties, minority rights and the rule of law are far less likely to experience both domestic and transnational terrorism than other types of regimes.

Studies have found, for example, that states that avoid illegal use of torture or other cruel treatment against citizens experience less terrorist violence, as do systems with effective and impartial judiciaries that are viewed as legitimate. Societies suffering from severe social, political, ethnic, and/or economic fragmentation and inequality, on the other hand, are more at risk of terrorist attacks. These tend to be non-democratic countries, particularly those in civil conflict.

More recently, we are witnessing an important exception to these general findings: a number of well-established democracies are experiencing an increase in transnational terrorist attacks. Perceived grievances toward armed interventions are helping extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS radicalise and recruit more adherents to their cause. This takes the form of foreign fighters from both democratic and non-democratic countries travelling to places such as Syria to take up arms for sectarian purposes.

We have also seen an increase in the number of “lone wolf” attacks in democratic Europe and North America by fanatics who, inspired by apocalyptic visions, are prepared to use any violent means at their disposal to kill and maim innocent civilians and stoke fear among the general population. Nonetheless, among those countries experiencing the highest rates of deadly terrorism, democracies are disproportionately under-represented. And of the 65 major violent extremist organisations that have emerged since 1992, 51 are present in less democratic countries.

Drivers of terrorist violence are multiple and complex and vary from locality to locality. Much more research is needed to better understand the motivations and mindsets of both the elites that organise such movements and their adherents. Nonetheless, as far as governance factors are concerned, explanations for these findings revolve around the inability of authoritarian, failing, and weak states to find political solutions for the underlying grievances that radicalise people to take such extreme measures.

Chronic political problems such as under-representation or exclusion from government power, or economic discrimination based on religion or ethnicity, are better addressed in pluralist democratic systems with open, competitive elections and fair administration of the rule of law. States that take multidimensional approaches to deal with root causes – political, social, psychological, community, educational, and economic strategies combined with fair criminal justice procedures – stand a better chance of minimising extremism.

That said, some terrorists with apocalyptic objectives will probably never be persuaded that entering politics will take them to their destination. The leaders of ISIS, for example, see history as a twilight struggle between cultures in which the individual is a disposable pawn. They fill innocent young minds with poison, spew lies while claiming sole ownership of the truth, pervert the teaching of one of the world’s great religions, and seek to achieve their goals by trying to bludgeon us into panic and retreat.

Liberal democracies are by design more committed to fundamental principles of political participation of all sectors of society and full respect for human rights and the rule of law. They also suffer fewer deadly terrorist attacks. Any comprehensive strategy to counter and prevent violent extremism, therefore, must include measures to strengthen and uphold these common features of liberal democracy. The first responsibility of any nation is to defend its territory, its people, and its way of life.

Three young men are led by a member of the Somali Police Force to a holding area. AU UN IST PHOTO/ TOBIN JONES.

The countries that have been attacked by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other extremist organisations have the right to respond with military force to take terrorist leaders off the battlefield and recapture territory. But to ultimately succeed in the fight against violent extremism, we must understand that although weakness encourages terrorism, overreaction spreads it. Young people are a specific group of interest in discussions about violent extremism, and violence more generally.

This phase of life is marked by continued socialisation and identity formation, a stage in which youth are assumed to be more vulnerable to external influences such as extremist and criminal groups. This generalisation, however, denies the significant agency that young people display, and the multiple roles as well as gender differences associated with their decisions. While the youthfulness of populations in many developing countries is associated with increased security risks, it is also the source of potential demographic dividends if young people are recognised also as contributors to society, including as political actors, employees, parents, and citizens.

A wide range of studies on young people’s associations with violent extremism point to different sets of factors that operate together to influence or protect against young people’s involvement in violent extremism. Political factors, such as the absence or weakness of the state and official corruption, experienced by youth as neglect, disinterest or even victimisation, can motivate young people to seek alternative means for achieving their needs (including socio-economic needs and protection from abuse) in extremist groups and associations; this has been observed in Mali and Nigeria. Evidence also suggests that repressive government actions, including human rights abuses, exacerbate discontent and anger directed at the government.

Allegations of extra-judicial executions in Kenya, Egypt and Nigeria appear to be a motivating factor for the youth who join Al-Shabaab, ISIS and Boko Haram, respectively. The targeting of ethnic and/or religious communities has shown similar responses from young people, for example, actions taken by Kenyan security agencies against Kenyan Somalis during Operation Usalama Watch in 2014. Government-sponsored abuses have been shown to foment political and social divisiveness, creating greater vulnerabilities to extremist groups. While poverty and related socio-economic factors are often assumed to be a driver of young people joining extremist groups, the evidence indicates more complexity in these associations.

A study from Mali, for example, confirmed a link between youth unemployment and their involvement with armed jihadist groups. However, it was also shown that young people ended up in these groups despite having sources of income that they considered satisfactory prior to their involvement, and that additional factors were at play, including the protection of their livelihoods or illicit activities such as drug trafficking. The significant number of ISIS recruits that come from middle-class backgrounds, with some holding stable, well-paid jobs in developed countries, argues for far more nuanced explanations that are not centered only on economic factors.

Psychological and social issues such as disillusionment and frustration due to perceptions of limited pathways to achieve progress relating to personal or political goals might lead young people to seek other avenues to achieve these goals, including joining extremist groups such as Al-Shabaab.

The issue may also be one of exclusion from the economy or certain sectors of it, rather than unemployment itself. Using Belgium as an example – the country with the largest employment gap between foreign nationals and nationals in Europe – a 2015 article by Chris Blattmann argues that economic exclusion is compounded by social or racial differences and draws the conclusion that “the shame and injustice of exclusion, not poverty, is what leads so many to rebel”.

Factors associated with family, parenting, and social systems have emerged in other studies. In Mauritania, many young people involved in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were found to be from divorced families. While this in itself likely can be managed with strong family support, the lack of parental supervision and care for orphaned or abandoned children has been increasingly linked to radicalisation in communities in northern Nigeria.

A further parallel among recruits is what researchers have referred to as “absent father syndrome”. There appears to be a link between abandonment or abuse by fathers during childhood and entry into violence in later years. Moreover, the propensity of youth to be strongly influenced by charismatic (typically) male leaders or recruiters appears to be greater in cases where the father was absent from a child’s life. In Somalia, the absence of father figures among men and boys that have joined Al-Shabaab is also significant. A 2013 study by James Ferguson found that the years of war in Somalia have destroyed multi-generational family connections that serve to nurture and guide young people. These issues relating to identity and belonging reverberate in other empirical studies, especially where the attractiveness of ISIS is considered.

A 2015 study by Ömer Taşpinar describes ISIS as a “pseudo-state in search of citizens”, and those that join as searching for belonging and acceptance. This finding is echoed in a study of ISIS defectors carried out by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. Issues around identity must be understood in a global context of young people who, for different reasons, are struggling to find a place of belonging and acceptance. Many recommendations for addressing young people’s attraction to or direct involvement in extremist groups echo the obligations already embedded in international policy frameworks, and those in other research produced in the Democracy and Security Dialogue:

• Local drivers demand local responses. Policy responses should be tailored to the complex local conditions faced by young people, and recognise that no single factor – economics, religion or ideology, for example – sufficiently explains why young people become involved in extremist groups.

• Tailor strategies to the varied roles of young men and women. Young people play multiple roles in their communities – as caregivers as well as students and workers. Differences in how young men and women’s roles in society are determined, as well as their choices in relation to associations with extremist groups, are also important to understand. Policies should rely on the best available interdisciplinary research and practices to understand these dynamics.

• Include youth in politics. Creating avenues and reducing barriers for young people’s political and economic participation and leadership are central to addressing the factors associated with violent extremism.

• Stop abuses and seek accountability for youth victims. Eliminating state-sponsored violence against young people and promoting the means to seek redress where victimisation is perceived or experienced should also be central objectives in addressing violent extremism.

This piece is summarised from a report of the Democracy and Security Dialogue of the Community of Democracies, titled Liberal Democracy and the Path to Peace and Security. The full report, and the publications that contributed to it, may be accessed at: