African Youth and Conflict:The Influence of Urbanization, Employment and Livelihoods

In my presentation at the Youth, Conflict and Governance in Africa workshop at Yale University on March 1, 2014, I drew from findings and analysis in the third chapter of my forthcoming book, The Outcast Majority: War, Development and Africa’s Youth (University of Georgia Press, 2015). I spoke about urbanization, employment and livelihoods with reference to African youth and conflict.

In my talk, I made four main points. First, I emphasized that cities are important destinations during and after wars. Anonymity, safety, money and escaping from the pressures of adulthood expectations are all potentially on offer in an urban area. And something a woman in eastern DRC told me: the reason her ex-combatant son had migrated to the city was to access maisha ya kizungu (the white man’s life), represented in things like mobile phones, watches and computers.

Second, there are ideas about what youth should do during and after wars. As youth pour into cities and informal economic sectors, development and reconstruction work often emphasizes just the opposite: agricultural and formal economic sectors. In this sense, many youth are not doing what they’re supposed to do, which tends to put them at odds with government and international institutions.

Third, it is important to see cities as enmeshed in morality. I mean this in three ways. One arises from differences in city neighborhoods. Urban borders between wealthy and poor neighborhoods are frequently distinct and may be armed or surveilled. This is dramatized in the conceit about Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, being safe and secure. It’s secure in some areas but insecure in areas where most people live. The stark difference emerged during field research for Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood (University of Georgia Press, 2012). Also, in poor urban neighborhoods, in-your-face inequality is often immediately clear. Basic services like garbage collection are increasingly privatized. In wealthier urban neighborhoods, there’s little or no garbage, whereas in poor neighborhoods garbage may be practically ever-present, host vermin and disease, and reek.

Inside urban neighborhoods, there often are tense standoffs involving youth. Stereotypes of “badness” can trail ordinary youth: many boys are thought to be thieves while many girls are considered either prostitutes or “bad” because they are thought to behave or dress like them. It is the sort of reputation that may be particularly difficult for female and male ex-combatants to avoid. Such so-called “bad boys” and “bad girls” often stand in stark contrast to male and female youth who are successful elites or outwardly religious (or both).

Ordinary youth know that others see them as troublesome. But from their perspective, morality can seem to have flipped: why are they seen as bad when corrupt authorities and threatening security forces are part of the mainstream?  You can see this disjuncture expressed in some hip hop songs, which are one the only ways that ordinary youth ideas reach the ears of other society members in African cities. A touchstone urban hip hop theme is the behavior of the police. This is significant, since police often are the strongest expression of the state in urban neighborhoods. Some may be involved in sweeping through neighborhoods, carrying out theft and extortion with impunity. When police officers do such things, then exactly what’s good and what’s bad? Such concerns often are present in African urban hip hop, among many other vital themes.

The final point I made concerned the difference between work and livelihoods. “Work” is often defined as that most treasured of occupations: a salaried job. What’s a livelihood? Normally, it’s whatever it takes. A common female youth livelihood in many neighborhoods is prostitution (full or part-time). Others are petty trading, brewing and selling beer, running a teashop, or working as a housegirl. Male youth in cities tend to have more economic options than their female counterparts. They can work as porters, middlemen who facilitate all sorts of economic trades, bike mechanics, auto mechanics, taximen, houseboys, and more. Working as a “thief” may be seen as a common occupation, as well as selling drugs. Sometimes the best shot an ex-combatant male youth has of making money without breaking laws is working as a security guard. Yet in many cases, being a former soldier may make him seem untrustworthy and dangerous. Sadly, it’s possible that making a living beyond the law may be his best livelihood option.

Here’s an example of how formal and informal sectors can link in urban youth lives. A male youth of 22 related that he wanted to work at the brewery in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. The man at the brewery had told him, “You can get a job, but first I need three months of advance salary.” I asked the youth, “What is your plan for getting this money?” He replied, “I thief.”[1]

Let’s return to maisha ya kizungu/white man’s life in town. The internet and laptops normally are the haven of elite youth in cities. Mobile phones are signs of being “up-to-date” for non-elite youth. It seems that, for many ordinary urban youth, you need to find a way to get “mobile.” Having one has become important, even if you only use it to text. In the end, mobiles are important signs of connection with the larger world and a sign of making it in the city.


Marc Sommers is a consultant and Visiting Researcher at Boston University’s African Studies Center. He taught for many years at The Fletcher School, Tufts University and was both a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and a Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He has consulted for donor agencies, NGOs, UN agencies and policy institutes since 1994, working in 21 war-affected countries across Africa and in Colombia, El Salvador, Kosovo, Macedonia, Pakistan and Timor-Leste. His work addresses a range of war and post-war issues, including youth, gender (sexual violence, adulthood, masculinity), child soldier, security, conflict negotiation, education, employment, governance, urbanization, displacement, development and coordination. His books include Stuck: Rwandan Youth and the Struggle for Adulthood, which received Honorable Mention for the 2013 Bethwell A. Ogot Book Prize; Islands of Education: Schooling, Civil War and the Southern Sudanese (1983-2004); and Fear in Bongoland: Burundi Refugees in Urban Tanzania, which received the 2003 Margaret Mead Award.


[1] More information on urban youth life in Bujumbura can be found in Adolescents and Violence: Lessons from Burundi (Discussion Paper #2013.02, Institute of Development Policy and Management, University of Antwerp, 2013);

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