The increasing participation of youths in violent activities in Nigeria in recent times is a source of worry to both policy-makers and researchers alike. Most violent activities, ranging from armed robbery, cultism, rape, street fighting, electoral violence, to violence during crises moments in Nigeria are being perpetrated by youths. Yet, the very future of this country depends on the kind of youths the present generation is able to nurture. This negative trend, obviously, is a product of a myriad of factors which this article will attempt to discuss shortly, and also suggest ways by which the menace can be tackled.
Since Nigeria attained political independence in 1960, one of the most challenging issues bedeviling the country is that of youth involvement in violent conflicts; whether they are ethnic, communal, religious, ethno-religious or political. Youth participation in violence is either a direct or indirect product of the structurally violent nature of our society over the years. Indeed, this trend has become a very common characteristic of not just the Nigerian society, but several African countries; to the extent that Africa has come to be tagged “a conflict endemic continent”. In Nigeria, apart from the Civil War earlier mentioned, which threatened the very fabric of the country’s existence, the country has witnessed several other conflicts in its different parts and at different times, leading to the emergence of youth militant and insurgent groups. These include the now seemingly docile Odua Peoples’ Congress (OPC); the erstwhile Movement for the Survival of Ogoni People (MOSOP); the Niger Delta Peoples’ Volunteer Force (NDPVF); the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MOSSOB); the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND); and quite recently, and very viciously, the dreaded Boko Haram, among others. These militant or insurgent groups are largely comprised of youths who adopt violence, mainly, as a strategy to drive home their demands. The negative effects of their activities are better imagined than said.
In this article, we will attempt to understand who a youth is; conceptualize conflict, violence and peacebuilding; look at the quagmire of the Nigerian youth; discuss the increasing role of youths in conflict and violence; discuss ways by which youths can be instrumental in peacebuilding; and then make recommendations and finally draw conclusion.
WHO ARE THE YOUTH?
A very crucial question we must answer at this juncture is who is a youth? In answering this question, it must be acknowledged that there is great difficulty in arriving at a common universally accepted definition of the term. However, the United Nations defines youths as “those persons between the ages of fifteen and twenty four years, without prejudice to other definitions by member states”. The African Youth Charter defines youth as “every person between the ages of 15 and 35”. Many countries also draw a line on youths at the age which a person is given equal treatment under the law, often referred to as the “age of majority”, this age is often 18 in many countries. In some countries, the age limit extends to between 30 and 40, in others it extends up to 45 years. The Nigerian National Youth Policy 2001 Document on its part defines youths as “people between the ages of 18 and 35”. However, the operational definition and nuances of the term youth often vary from country to country, depending on the specific socio-cultural, institutional, economic and political factors. Despite the challenges of definition the United Nations defines youth as a person between the ages of 15 and 24. UNESCO understands young people as heterogeneous group in constant evolution and that the experience of being young varies enormously across regions and within countries. The Nigerian National Youth Policy (2001) defines youth as comprising all young persons between the ages of 18 and 35 years who are citizen of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The categorization of youth in my view would inevitably depend on the vacation in relation to which the definitionis being proffered. While a forty years old athlete, for instance, is definitely aging and has long passed his prime, he would still be a spring chicken if he was a politiciann. Therefore, it is safe to posit that from a political perspective, anyone who falls within the bracket of 18 to 50 years could be regarded as a youth. Some are even prepared to further extend to bracket to accommodate the young at heart.
Again, in addition to being understood in terms of age, youth is also understood in terms of a process of transition from childhood to adulthood, marked by rituals or physical changes, as well as culturally as regards the roles they play in a given social context.
Youths have a number of characteristics, which include physical stamina, exuberance, intelligence, and perseverance, among others. All these potentials, if properly harnessed, constitute an invaluable asset to any nation. Failure to fully harness these potentials in youths only spells disaster for the future of any nation.
WHAT IS CONFLICT, VIOLENCE AND PEACEBUILDING ?
The term “conflict”, from a very simplistic view may be said to be the absence of peace, disagreement, chaos, violence, disharmony, fighting etc. From a scholarly point of view however, conflict may be said to be the struggle or competition between individuals, groups or societies over incompatible goals, which often leads to violent destruction of life and property. This definition does not in any way assume a status of universal acceptance. Scholars, certainly differ in their conception of the term conflict. It however, gives us a fundamental idea of what conflict is. The struggle may be over resources, values, power, ideology, and territory, just to mention a few.
Violence is a concept in peace studies which means any action that inflicts physical or psychological harm on a person or group of persons. This is usually adopted when a conflict has escalated to the stage of crisis or war. Although violence may be conceived in this way, it is important to be a bit more academic while attempting to understand the term. This implies that we should go beyond the simplistic understanding of the term. A renowned Peace Scholar by name Johan Galtung describes violence in three ways. These are: direct violence; structural violence; and cultural violence. Direct violence is any action that inflicts physical harm on an individual or group of persons. It includes things like killing and maiming, burning of peoples’ property, and rape, among others. Structural violence on the other hand means those structural deficiencies in a society which make the society not to function effectively, so as to create the enabling environment for its citizens to realize their aspirations. These include, but are not limited to corruption, lack of good governance, lack of functional institutions, lack of critical infrastructure, abuse of human rights, and massive poverty. Cultural violence to him refers to all the values, traditions, beliefs, and norms in a society, which promote or reinforce direct violence.
Looking at the Nigerian society, one can see a prevalence of all the forms of violence described by Galtung. First, there is widespread direct violence. This comes in the form of armed attacks during crises moments, armed robbery, and rape, among several others. Structural violence comes in the forms already described above also. It is crucially important at this juncture to comment on some dimensions of structural violence, and I would like to begin with corruption, because most others are deeply rooted in it. It is mind-bugling when one considers the amount of foreign exchange Nigeria earns per day just from the sale of crude oil, yet, most of Nigerians are still wallowing in excruciating poverty. The overarching effect of this is the general lack of basic necessities of life – food, shelter and clothing by most Nigerians.
In addition, basic infrastructure such as functional health care, good drinking water, and good road network, among others, are near absent, compared to what obtains in other countries which cannot be placed at per with Nigeria, in terms of resources and manpower potentials. Where some of these facilities and services exist, their cost is often beyond what the ordinary citizen can afford. Most of our roads have graduated from being ‘deathtraps’ into ‘graveyards’, while most of our hospitals have also graduated from being ‘mere consultancy clinics’ into ‘transit camps to the mortuary’, due to corruption and mismanagement. We shall discuss the relationship between this scenario and the rising trend of youth participation in violent activities shortly.
Peacebuilding on the other hand refers to the steps taken by multiple stakeholders towards establishing positive peace in the society. Within this context, the role of critical stakeholders such as the state, international organizations, top political and military officials, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), the media, traditional rulers, religious leaders, youth groups and Community Based Organizations (CBOs), among others, is considered very crucial. The idea of perceiving peacebuilding as a multi-stakeholder activity is borne out of the fact that conflict affects everybody in the society; therefore, peacebuilding should be the responsibility of all in the society, though in terms of ranking, some stakeholders shoulder greater responsibility than others. The state for instance, is considered to be the most critical stakeholder in task of peacebuilding because, aside from the fact it has enormous resources with which it can provide critical infrastructure such as roads, water, and electricity, among others, to its citizens, it legitimately controls the instruments of coercion, with which it enforces law and order in the society and also protects the life and property of its citizens. Traditional rulers and religious leaders are equally very crucial because they exercise great influence over their subjects and followers respectively.
THE NIGERIAN YOUTH IN A QUAGMIRE
Obviously, the future of the Nigerian youth has been hijacked by the Nigerian elite. Although, the political elite are the major culprit in this, there seems to be a conspiratorial collaboration between it and other sectors of the elite. This, they have done by not creating the enabling environment for the youth to realize their full potentials through good governance. By not ensuring transparency and accountability in governance, but rather perpetrating corruption, mismanagement and misallocation of resources, the Nigerian elite have disempowered the youth, and have reduced them to what I call ‘glorified beggars’. Nigerian elites prefer to recruit the youth as political thugs, to use them during elections to intimidate their opponents and rig elections, rather than empower them, and build their capacity for future challenges. In the developed world, greater emphasis is laid on developing functional institutions and giving the youth a sound education by both government and private organizations. Manpower development is at the base of any society’s progress and not resources as we tend to think in Nigeria.
It is a well-focused and intellectually sound and skilled manpower that can efficiently harness the resources of any society to realize the goals of development, which will ultimately result to a peaceful society. No wonder, they are where they are today. For us, in what I call the ‘de-developed’ countries, the priorities of many of our leaders are rather on self-aggrandizement, once they assume political office. Today, it seems most of the present crop of political leaders in our country don’t believe in the Nigerian youth. They seem to think that empowering the Nigerian youth is a wasteful venture, or even a mistake, no wonder; education is not given the much-needed attention it deserves. Within this context, Nigerian youths are at the receiving end, as they are left without qualitative education and therefore, disempowered for life. This underscores the reason why they are increasingly frustrated, and become violent at the slightest provocation.
YOUTHS AS AGENTS OF PEACEBUILDING
This paper will not be fair to the Nigerian youth if it stops at portraying them as a violent set of people, or better still, easy recruits for violence, without focusing on their potential role in peacebuilding. Youths, just as they are very active in perpetrating violence, they can equally be effective instruments of peacebuilding in any society. Viewing youths as agents of peace challenges the traditional conception of youths as agents of violence. How can youths be effective agents of peacebuilding?
To start with, for the fact that virtually all our schools are dominated by youths, the school therefore, can serve as a breeding ground for both war and peace. When peace virtues are inculcated in the youth, they will certainly grow up to be peaceful in the society. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs, 22:6).
Again, youths can utilize the opportunity provided by a democratic system to build peace in the society. In this regard, associational life can bring youths together for the purpose of peacebuilding, rather than violence. They can organize themselves and make their voices heard on matters that affect them, and indeed, the entire society. By this, they can influence positive action on such matters from government and other stakeholders.
Moreover, the opportunities provided by Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can serve a very crucial role of mobilizing youths for peacebuilding in the society. The use of social media like Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Blogger, through the internet or mobile phones can help youths spread peace messages, rather than hate messages.
Youths are very critical to the development of any society, the world over. Without a well-educated and therefore, empowered youth, no society can have the needed peace and stability to fast-track development.
Most Nigerian youths today, have increasingly become perpetrators of violence, not because they are naturally violent, but mainly, due to the structurally violent nature of the society within which they find themselves. We noted in this paper that under this circumstance, the future of the Nigerian youth has been hijacked, and unless the measures which we suggested are carried out by all stakeholders, we will only be raising a generation of militants, insurgents, drug addicts, and armed robbers, among others, whose target will be the society itself.
Joel Samuel Feyisola,
Sunshine Progressive Youth Alliance Ondo State Nigeria,
Young people are frequently ‘othered’ in discussions about conflict. This is a dangerous practice as youths can play a very positive role aiding peacebuilding in societies recovering from conflict.
The UN World Population Prospects statistics estimate that there are 1.3 billion 15-24 years olds in the world and nearly one billion live in developing countries where conflict is more likely to have taken place.
In such demographic realities, the potential youths hold for change and positive action is the subject of growing research agenda, and this is particularly the case with the recent wave of social upheavals and humanitarian crises in different parts of the world.
For much of human social interaction, the category called ‘youth’ has been perceived as a historically constructed social category, a relational concept, and as a group of actors that is far from homogenous. A myriad of factors make childhood and youth highly heterogeneous categories in terms of gender, class, race, ethnicity, political position as well as age.
They also have multi-faceted roles. Youths can be heroes as well as victims, saviours and courageous in the midst of crisis, as well as criminals in the shantytowns and military entrepreneurs in the war zones. Yet, as a category, youth are often approached as a fixed group or demographic cohort.
Youth, peace and conflict
Youths as a conceptual category are frequently ‘othered’ in the discourse on conflict. They are seen as potentially dangerous ‘subjects’ and policy approaches often regard them as ‘a problem’. Often, male youths in the age group 16-30 have been observed as the main protagonists of criminal and political violence. In other words, much of contemporary thinking on youth and conflict tends to be overly negative. It focuses on the dangers posed by disaffected youths as is evident in the negative connotations of the ‘youth bulge’ or ‘at risk youth’ concepts.
A number of dangerous assumptions about the role, position, and contribution of youths appear to plague thinking among national and international elites driving recovery efforts within societies in transition. The majority of national and international policy pronouncements or security-related programmes in post-conflict and fragile contexts reflect a polarised discourse.
The young vacillate between the two extremes of ‘infantilizing’ and ‘demonizing’. On the one hand, youths are viewed as vulnerable, powerless and in need of protection. On the other, they are feared as dangerous, violent, apathetic and as threats to security. Youths are subjected to stereotypical images of being angry, drugged and violent and as threat, especially those who participated in armed conflict as combatants.
On the other hand, recent literature on youth in post-conflict societies marks a shift in thinking about youth. It underlines the agency perspective, and acknowledges the importance of making the connection between youth and peacebuilding for transforming a predominantly negative discourse on the role of youths in societies recovering from conflict.
Youth as peacebuilders
The positioning of youth in society has a bearing on their leadership potential and their possible role in peacebuilding. The tension between young and old has been one of the key features of inter-generational shifts pertaining to the control over power, resources and people.
The tension lies in the palpable impatience of youth, their desire to strive for more, their willingness to be seen as responsible and capable, and the structural barriers to their social mobility. Independence from others and responsibility for others, such as taking care of a family or household, can be seen as defining markers of pre-requisites of social adulthood.
In this sense, dependency, exclusion, and social or political marginalization become prominent sources of social contest. At the same time, it should be recognised that such societal dynamics, challenges and opportunities vary across different cultural contexts whether it is in Africa, Europe, Asia or Latin America.
Within the challenging fluidity of post-conflict environments, which are nothing but contexts where the politics of war continue through different means, the young would need to show great ‘navigational skills’ in order to respond to such power dynamics. Their social, political and economic navigation is about their identity transformation as well as the negotiation or re-negotiation of societal norms, values and structures so that they can find a voice and place in the emerging structures of post-conflict environments.
What needs to be underlined is that youth should be conceptualized and studied as agents of positive peace in terms of addressing not only the challenges of physical violence, but also the challenges of structural and cultural violence, and the broader social change processes to transform violent, oppressive and hierarchical structures, as well as behaviour, relationships and attitudes into more participatory and inclusive ones.
The key point to remember is that without recognizing youths as political actors, their trajectories in peacebuilding would likely be ignored, wasted and at best, under-utilized. To recognize their agency as a political actor in peacebuilding, there needs to be a comprehensive understanding of their conflict trajectories, and this is particularly important for those young people who have taken direct participation in an armed conflict as combatants.
To understand the engagement of youth in peacebuilding, first of all, the youth mobilization and reintegration factors such as who they are, what they did before the conflict, how they were recruited, what specific fighting roles they undertook, what they experienced physically, socio-economically and psychologically, during the armed conflict, and what ‘home’ context they will be reintegrating into will all be critical for the youth’s trajectories in peacebuilding.
Second, the involvement of youth in non-violent politics, and from a wider perspective, the enablement of their political agency in a more positive and peace-oriented role in post-conflict environments, is likely to depend on how these trajectories are shaped by the overall political and governance context.
Third, the enablement of youth as an active agent in peacebuilding cannot be considered without considering such challenges they tend to face due to the armed conflict such as the loss of education, a lack of employable skills and the destruction of a stable family environment. The wider socio-economic needs of youths are often ignored in post-conflict contexts as they are not seen as a ‘vulnerable’ group.
Fourth, it is important to provide youths with training opportunities to take an active part in peacebuilding. With their youthful energy and capabilities, and ability of adaptation to new technological trends, for example, youths could act as mediators, community mobilisers, humanitarian workers and peace brokers. Like any particular conflict affected population group, the mobilisation of youths’ capacities requires a targeted and long-term approach.
At the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, an annual event called Global Peace Workshop is held in Turkey every year. Around 70-80 young participants from across the world get together in this one-week training, networking and solidarity event, and it is incredible to see the transformation of those young people in a such a short span of time as peacebuilders and start undertaking a wide range of peacebuilding projects in their own communities, schools and work places.
Fifth, the engagement of youth in peacebuilding in a wider perspective can be ensured through the arts, culture, tourism, sports and education. The innovativeness and creativeness of young people in those areas could be mobilised effectively by connecting them with wider peacebuilding objectives such as building bridges between divided communities and ensuring a viable process of reconciliation.
There are many examples across the world of the contributions that the young make towards peacebuilding such as the strengthening of community cohesion and reconciliation in South Sudan, civic awareness for peaceful social relations and development programmes in Nepal, trust-building across different ethno-religious groups in Sri Lanka, and community entrepreneurship and livelihoods programmes in Burundi. Furthermore, the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development Report entitled ‘Young People’s Participation in Peacebuilding: A Practice Note’ presents a number of policy and programme examples from different conflict affected countries that would facilitate such participation more effectively.
Finally, in undertaking all of these objectives it is also pivotal to avoid the well-known cliché of referring to youths as the ‘future leaders’. Leadership should not be considered as a factor of age and providing appropriate governance contexts would likely enable young people to flourish as leaders today. In other words, they need to be treated as leaders today without postponing it to an elusive future whether it is in governance in general or peacebuilding programmes specifically.
To achieve this objective there have recently been a number of critical developments such as the UN Security Council Resolution 2250 on Youth, Peace and Security of December 2015 which makes a clear recognition of positive contributions of youth to peace and sets an overall framework to support their efforts. In May 2016, the UN Peacebuilding Fund started its first Youth Promotion Initiative, which could play a key role to encourage youth leadership in peacebuilding. Therefore, the current trends show that there will be many more similar youth leadership programmes across the world in the near future, but the key point for their successes will depend on whether or not such initiatives can also respond to wider socio-economic, cultural and political barriers that young people face in their quest of becoming an active agent of positive change, peacebuilding and reconciliation.
Professor Alpaslan Ozerdem is Co-Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.