An expert's point of view on a current event.

Africa’s Angry Young Men

No school, no job, no future. Why so many of Africa's young men choose militias.

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The Central African Republic (CAR) is a poor, arid, landlocked country the size of Texas. According to the United Nations, the former French colony is now experiencing the world’s largest forgotten humanitarian crisis. In March 2013, a mainly Muslim rebel group overthrew the corrupt regime of President François Bozizé. In response, a Christian militia took revenge on the country’s Muslim minority with a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. Ninety-nine percent of Muslims in the capital, Bangui, are dead or have left, and one quarter of the country’s entire population have fled their homes.

Despite the religious make-up of the warring parties, refugees who have sought shelter in neighboring Chad do not describe a conflict driven by religion. When I spoke with them, they emphasized the years of harmony between their country’s Muslims and Christians and the exemplary behavior of faith leaders since the conflict began. Research by Louisa Lombard and Sylvain Batianga-Kinzi confirms that this civil war is not really about religion — but is rooted in decades of marginalization and poverty. The political leaders responsible for the current chapter of the CAR’s dismal post-independence history have lost control of the angry young men they motivated, manipulated and armed in order to achieve their aims, and their country is now paying the price.

The reason such manipulation was possible in the first place is that so many of the CAR’s young men are socially and economically marginalized. Poor education, limited employment opportunities, and frustration with the country’s corrupt and ineffective governance make these men prime targets for exploitation and radicalization. And it’s about time the international community started paying attention to this phenomenon, as it is not limited to the CAR, but increasingly common across the region. Success in reducing infant mortality, coupled with a failure to reduce fertility rates, has caused a population bulge among 15- to 24-year-olds in northern Nigeria, Niger, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan and South Sudan. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of youth in the world, with a median age of 18 — and they are twice as likely as their parents to be unemployed.

Another factor common to the CAR and its neighbors is limited access to education. Some young men from traditional livestock-herding backgrounds are unconvinced that the meager education on offer is useful in their impoverished rural circumstances. Others embrace an ideology that rejects education as “Western,” which can be a compelling argument in a society that was colonized and exploited by European powers. But mostly simply don’t have access to the very limited education systems their weak governments have managed to set up. UNESCO figures suggest that the eighteen countries with the lowest levels of youth literacy are all in sub-Saharan Africa. Guinea’s youth literacy rate is only 31 percent, while the CAR and Niger score not much better with 37 percent. Altogether in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South and West Asia, there are 48 million illiterate young people. Shocking as these figures are, they fail to reveal the gap between urban and rural areas in availability of education. The young men recruited by militias across Africa hail mainly from deprived rural districts where lack of infrastructure means inadequate access to schools and poor teaching standards. In the DRC and Nigeria, the percentage of young people who are literate is actually falling.

Uneducated young men are more susceptible to the militias’ recruiting methods, especially when they offer a simple worldview ostensibly based on theology, as Boko Haram in Nigeria does, or opportunities to loot, as do the Janjaweed in Sudan and the various pro- and anti-government militias in South Sudan and the eastern DRC. But even for those young men who do manage to get some education, employment opportunities in the CAR, Chad, the DRC, Sudan, Niger, Mali, Nigeria and South Sudan are limited. These countries’ economies are based largely on subsistence farming, livestock herding, and illicit trade in natural resources like diamonds and gold. For example, CAR’s economy is only one-tenth the size of the city of Chattanooga — and it struggles to provide work for the country’s four million people. No wonder youth are attracted to the steady employment and economic opportunities offered by armed groups.

Taking these factors together, it is unsurprising that unskilled, illiterate young men who have very limited economic opportunities are attracted to the militia. Joining a militia makes an attractive alternative to rural poverty and unemployment, and provides camaraderie and self-esteem in a region where people feel shut out of power by the ruling elite. In this respect, militia members have something in common with disenfranchised young men who join inner city gangs in the developed world. In Ghettoside, Jill Leovy describes the conditions allowing bullies and thugs to claim the streets of parts of Los Angeles. Gangs, like militia, provide an identity and a sense of power and belonging.

Though initially politically motivated, many of these militias quickly morph into criminal enterprises that are difficult to uproot. The NGO Saferworld found that the traditional theft of cattle and girls in South Sudan has turned far deadlier as self-styled rebels access the small arms proliferating throughout the region. Some members of the Islamic State admit openly that they are motivated to join by the prospect of raping girls with impunity.

The international community often responds to conflicts with negotiations and peacekeeping forces, producing short-term fixes. As the International Crisis Group recently warned, while diplomats in the CAR focus on security in the capital, the vast majority of the country is lawless, in the hands of marauding militia-turned-bandits. We should expect similar low-level conflicts to continue beyond the suburbs of capital cities while Sudan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Niger, DRC, and Chad struggle with militias comprised of uneducated and unemployable young men, some of whom are in search of loot and wives, many of whom had no other realistic choice — and some of whom were forced to join.

This specter calls for sustained pressure on the region’s rulers to use their nations’ resources to address these issues. Refugees from rural areas of Chad, the CAR, and Sudan told me they feel powerless and marginalized by the nepotistic urban elite. The presence of the state is minimal beyond the suburbs of the cities, and little is done to address long-term structural problems such as the increasing competition for land, they said. Until more African leaders see it as their responsibility to provide good schools and to demonstrate the tangible benefits of education, parents may keep their children working on the land rather than going to school. Facilitating education must be accompanied by infrastructure development that in turn makes economic development, and thus employment, possible. None of this is likely while leaders treat their administrations as personal bank accounts or sources of jobs for their clan.

North America, Europe, and Japan subsidize their own farmers for political reasons, dumping their artificially low-cost overproduction on the developing world in the form of aid or as imports priced so low that locally grown crops become uncompetitive. At the same time, the global north demands that developing countries remove protectionist tariffs on imports from the rich nations, again putting local producers at a disadvantage. Wealthy countries must also stop propping up corrupt dictators for short-term geopolitical reasons, and end Western complicity in laundering money stolen by the African elite. It is estimated that $100 billion in illicit capital leaves Africa, mostly from countries in West and Central Africa, each year. This dwarfs foreign aid arriving in Africa, and is a sign of how little confidence wealthy Africans have in their own governance or economic development. Finally, for years international development aid has focused on projects training and empowering women and girls. It may be time to find similar, separate programs for men and boys — before they are handed their guns.

Photo credit: FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Rebecca Tinsley is the founder of the human rights group Waging Peace. Visit her web site at