Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics, and Conflict in Africa

Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics, and Conflict in Africa

Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics, and Conflict in Africa

Vanguard or Vandals: Youth, Politics, and Conflict in Africa


This book contains a range of original studies on one of the major challenges in Africa today: the controversial role of youth in politics, conflict and rebellious movements. The issue is not only the drafting of child soldiers into insurgent armies or predatory militias, as in Somalia, Sierra Leone or Congo, but, more generally, that of the problematic insertion of large numbers of young people in the socio-economic and political order of post-colonial Africa. Even educated youths are being confronted with a lack of opportunities, blocked social mobility, and despair about the future. Many of the political antagonisms and conflicts in which youths are involved do not only exist at the discursive level but are being produced by current demographic and socio-political contradictions in Africa. African youth, while forming a numerical majority, largely feel excluded from power, are socio-economically marginalized and thwarted in their ambitions. They have little access to representative positions or political power, which is making for a politically volatile situation in many African countries. The authors address several case studies from across Africa: the Mungiki movement in Kenya, youth agency in southern Sudan in times of war, the challenges of re-integrating youthful ex-combatants in Sierra Leone, and street children in Togo. A common aim is to try to explain why patterns of generational conflict and violent response among younger age groups in Africa are showing such a remarkably uneven spread across the continent and to advance the comparative study of youth and generational conflict beyond mere description of the varied empirical cases.


Jon Abbink

The ‘problem of youth’ in Africa

In his most recent book on Africa, Négrologie, the French author Stephen Smith makes a sober assessment of Africa’s problems: ‘il faut cesser de travestir les réalités de l’Afrique en mêlant ce qui serait souhaitable à ce qui existe …. le présent n’a pas d’avenir sur le continent’ (2003: Avant Propos). Even if we are less Afro-pessimist than Smith, see more diversity and variety than he does and look for positive aspects, this remark could very well apply to the overall situation of young people in Africa. They are facing tremendous odds and do not seem to have the future in their own hands. While there has been progress in some respects – for example, in education, migration and job opportunities in the urban arena – the exponential population increase and the fierce competition for resources within the contexts of malfunctioning or failing states have led to a relative decline in the well-being and social advancement of young people in Africa. They are growing up in conditions of mass unemployment and are facing exclusion, health problems, crisis within the family due to poverty and the AIDS pandemic, and a lack of education and skills. They also are marginalized in national state policies and have a weak legal position. African youths are over-represented in armed rebel or insurgent movements of various kinds as well as in criminal activities, to which they are so easily recruited. There is no prospect that this situation will change for the better in the near future.

This starts early. According to Black, Morris & Bryce (2003: 2226), there was a child mortality rate in 2000 of 176 per 1000 live births in Sub-Saharan Africa (as against 6 per 1000 in developed industrialized countries).

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