Youth (in)security: Lessons from Kenya

Youth (in)security: Lessons from Kenya

 
 
Kenya's post-election crisis manifested itself in one of the worst political turmoils experienced in the country since independence, opening up wounds of historical injustices, inequalities in society, and issues related to ethnic identity. But the central role young people played in the ensuing chaos should hold valuable lessons for South Africa, writes PRISCILLA WAMUCII.
   
After the political settlement which led to the establishment of a government of national unity, two major standpoints emerged pertaining to youth involvement in the violence. The first, premised on the idea that the youth were young men and women exercising their democratic rights, advocated for a blanket amnesty.

A historical analysis indicates that the violence exhibited by the youth could be attributed to deteriorating socioeconomic developments in the country.

The second perspective argued that implicated youth should face prosecution if found guilty by local courts. While these issues are yet to be addressed, the Kenyan experience might be an instructive case study for South Africa as the country continues to struggle with high levels of youth unemployment in a highly unequal society.

Poor, unemployed youth

A historical analysis indicates that the violence exhibited by the youth could be attributed to deteriorating socioeconomic developments in the country. The plight of young people has been documented with the Kenya National Youth Policy (2006), placing the unemployment rate for this group at 75%. What is more, a number of those who find employment are often over-qualified and get jobs that are not consistent with personal goals.

Other challenges include a 75% HIV/AIDS infection rate for people in the 20-45 year age group. And many young people drop out of school and college due to the high cost of education and increase in overall poverty levels, poor returns on investment in education and the lack of a re-admission policy for teenage mothers.

Boredom and frustration

The energy embodied in the huge numbers of idle and frustrated youth has been channelled towards multiple avenues. Some young people choose to participate in community development activities, such as volunteers in local NGOs. The Mathare Youth Sports Association located in the Mathare slums (informal settlements) is an illustration of such ventures. The organisation uses sports as an entry point to community activities by requiring its members to put in a number of community service hours, channelled through involvement in environmental clean-ups or by engaging in HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, among other activities.

Gangs function as socialising institutions when other institutions fail, some leading to participation in violent and criminal activities.

Joining gangs

The second category of youth directs its energy towards less constructive activities. In Kenya, as in many other countries, cities, and informal settlements in particular, are hot spots for gang-related activities. Gangs function as socialising institutions when other institutions fail, some leading to participation in violent and criminal activities.

The emergence of gangs throughout Kenya in the 1990s was largely in response to economic rather than political stimuli and formed the foundations for the ‘privatisation' of violence. Many gang activities were geared towards providing some of the public services that would ordinarily be provided by government, thereby earning the groups the label of ‘shadow governments'.

A number of gangs emerged as private security forces in the form of vigilante groups. These groups were not permanent formations but rather loose associations of idle unemployed people who are easy to mobilise at short notice. They became a preferred option to ineffective responses by police in a number of cases. Their presence was sometimes authorised by local residents. The Taliban vigilante group, for instance, was often invited by local leaders in Nairobi's informal settlements to help protect residents and their property. The same group, however, has also been accused by residents of extortion.

Gangs as sources of insecurity are embedded in societal discourses. Battles over turf or control of certain areas are not uncommon. In 2001, for example, Mungiki gang-members fought with a rival group, the Kamjesh gang, over control of Matatu (taxi) city routes. And then landlords are also known to hire gangs as a way of ensuring that tenants comply with rent payment.

The youth as a political force

Political parties emerged as a means of consolidating political power. As early as the 1960s, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) used its youth wing to intimidate political opponents, while in the 1980s it became commonplace for politicians to have their own (violent) gangs of supporters, generally of the same ethnic group.

The utilisation of the youth in politics has been located within patron-client relationships, evident in election violence. According to various reports by commissions established to investigate ethnic clashes during elections, for example the Waki Commission Report (2008), young people were paid and offered land and jobs as tokens for evicting certain ethnic groups. While it is not clear if they were duly rewarded, the promises were sufficient to engage them.

The 2007 election violence was, of course, a culmination of previous conflicts. Various groups, including well organised and established groups, spontaneous groups and ethnic militias situated in various parts of the country, took arms after the final results were announced. Not surprisingly, the attacks were precipitated by previous grievances that revolved around human security issues.

The utilisation of the youth in politics has been located within patron-client relationships, evident in election violence.

Youth violence in the 2007 election conflict reveals government ineffectiveness in protecting its people both physically and in the provision of basic human rights. The sheer growth of youth gangs has made it difficult for government to adequately address their advancement. Likewise, it could also be argued that the marginalisation of the youth has led to poverty, and the lack of mechanisms for upward mobility makes it difficult to address development issues; such a task would require tremendous resources.

Previous government interventions that have dealt with gangs - including the imposition of bans, extra-judicial killings of gang members by specialised criminal investigation squads and the arrest of leaders - have failed to limit gang activities. This failure could be attributed to the fact that the real issues, which include economic empowerment and a space for youth engagement in politics, have not been addressed. Kenya's experience suggests that the quest for economic and political security is the key to unlocking youth instability.

Lessons for South Africa

Many similarities can be drawn between Kenya's youth and their South African counterparts who face high unemployment rates, significant numbers of school dropouts and various forms of social inequality. This situation accentuates youth vulnerability and their propensity to engage in social unrest. Implicit in this is a social construction of young people that is heavily influenced by material circumstances. Although many young people are involved in development activities, the proliferation of gangs and youth unrest is an issue of concern that is a threat to national security.

Recently, South African defence and military veterans minister Lindiwe Sisulu, unveiled a plan to recruit the youth to a National Youth Service, but it remains to be seen if such efforts will provide long-term solutions to the plight of the youth.

As highlighted by the Kenya predicament, unless human security issues are addressed by focusing on the youth with the objective of complementing national security, African countries facing similar challenges are likely to continue experiencing sociopolitical tensions and conflicts.

Dr Priscilla Wamucii is a research specialist in the newly constituted Service Delivery, Democracy and Governance programme.