Youth turn to violence and gangs as local governments struggle with security

Youth turn to violence and gangs as local governments struggle with security – Blog

&shy;Youth turn to violence and gangs as local governments struggle with decentralization of security and lack of resources. <em>(c) Tom Dirven/PANOS</em>

­Youth turn to violence and gangs as local governments struggle with decentralization of security and lack of resources. (c) Tom Dirven/PANOS

Mayssam Zaaroura works at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada where she is responsible for outreach and research uptake. In this blog post, she shares findings from projects in Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana, which are part of the DFID-IDRC funded Safe and Inclusive Cities Initiative.

DAKAR, Senegal: Young African men and women are turning to gangs and violence as a last resort, amid a rapidly urbanizing context, and a struggle between national and local governments over who is responsible for maintaining security.

Criminal gangs in West and Central Africa are growing, and their members are getting younger – some only 10 years old.

“By 2050, Africa’s population will be 2.4 billion – the highest concentration of people in the world.” Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General of the Cities and Local Governments of Africa (CGLUA)
Some of the lessons learned from West and Central Africa, during a two-day knowledge exchange in Dakar in April, brought to light rising exclusion that is pushing youth to violence and gang life.

Climbing youth unemployment, unequal distribution of resources, and a lack of access to justice and opportunities were just some of the drivers of violence and crime identified by participants during the Dakar conference. Joining in the debate were mayors from a number of Sub-Saharan and Southern African nations, researchers supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre, practitioners, and other experts from many of the region’s urban centres.

Jointly hosted by IDRC, the City of Dakar, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), and Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale (IPAR), the event showcased research findings from projects in Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana, which are part of the DFID-IDRC funded Safe and Inclusive Cities Initiative.

Professor Francis Akindès, from the Université Alassane Ouattara in Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire, said that young gang members describe how they can “do the unbelievable” when they are high on widely-available street drugs.

Many of these gangs, such as the "Microbes" in Abidjan or the "Kuluna" in Kinshasa, are made up of young, marginalized men and women who see violence as a skill to be mastered, and who see themselves as “socially dead”. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the high birth rate – averaging 10 children per woman – is placing even more pressure on the community, with young children accused of witchcraft and becoming socially marginalized.

In Ghana, the poor pay a penalty for being poor: they are most at risk of being victims of crime, while at the same time they lack the resources to seek justice for it. Absent sufficient government support, Ghanaians take security and justice into their own hands. They form vigilante groups which ironically put them at greater risk. When crimes occur, informal justice mechanisms largely based on cash being paid to the victim’s family are frequently used and rarely result is justice for the victim.

Security: whose job is it, anyway?

As participants tried to identify the causes of urban violence and social exclusion — and debate possible solutions to making cities safer — Dakar’s mayor, Khalifa Sall, added that human insecurity and exclusion are at the heart of what we are experiencing today and it is leading to more and more marginalized youth.

Infographic: Drivers of exclusion, criminality and violence. Download full infographic (c) IDRC
The lack of police resources has underlined a real struggle between local and national governments over who is responsible for maintaining security. Decentralization is happening across the world, and in some situations is going hand in hand with inadequate resources – financial, human, and infrastructural. For many municipalities and actors at the local level, security and policing is emerging as a key challenge.

With a continent experiencing a rapid rate of urbanization and population explosion, the ratio of police to population at the local level is simply not enough to keep up, and the focus so far for municipalities has been poverty alleviation and service delivery, rather than security provision.

Municipalities are trying to take preventative action, Sall said, adding: “Decentralization is a slogan but do African municipalities have the capacities and the means to meet the pressures of urbanization and violence?”

This event took place as a lead-up to the African Forum for Urban Safety, which is to be held in Durban, South Africa in June, and during which mayors, researchers, and practitioners will set the urban agenda for the African continent and feed into the United Nations’ global efforts for a New Urban Agenda.

There was a push from participants for collaboration by governments, civil society, and researchers to combat this growing problem. According to the deputy mayor of Durban, Nomvuso Shabalala, “the continent must be united in action. We can’t be South Africa, West Africa, East Africa…this has to be a united continental effort.”

Better education and more jobs?

A primary objective of the Dakar meeting was to identify solutions that can begin to tackle this problem. IDRC-supported research from West and Central Africa suggests some key recommendations that can target the problem at its core. Addressing unemployment for young men and women and raising the mandatory schooling age will help get kids off the street and into a safer place through which other social services can be delivered.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the severity of the issue has caught international attention, with the French National Assembly conducting a fact-finding mission to learn more from the researchers, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Côte d’Ivoire using the findings to inform a project on youth’s contributions to social cohesion in the country.

Improvements to public housing in slums and expanding family planning programs will help create stable families and homes that are welcoming to children.

Having said that, one of the leading causes of youth joining gangs has been exclusion – social, political, and economic. Exclusionary state policies, which are being re-instated with every election of the same political cadres, have pushed young men and women towards finding belonging and agency through violent gangs.

Policies aimed at marginalized groups that are more inclusive, quality service delivery, development of clean, safe and inclusive urban spaces, economic invigoration, education and technical vocations, and community and political participation would go a long way in mitigating the pull of gang life.

Read more about the IDRC research at

Interested in finding out more about the conference? Read the Storify recap of the event’s highlights in English and French.

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