Africa needs to drop the ‘youth bulge’ discourse

Young Africans need to resist the way they are being spoken about, argues Wangui Kimari

Youth bulge: A public billboard in Uganda urges people to have smaller families.
Youth bulge: A public billboard in Uganda urges people to have smaller families. Photo: Jenny Matthews / Panos

Africa is obsessed with talking about the ‘youth bulge’. Pundits and politicians are engaged in an endless conversation about the vast and growing population of young people on their continent, where there are set to be almost a billion under-18s by 2050.

But the ‘youth bulge’ is not a neutral demographic discourse. It has become a highly suspect way of thinking about young people, inflected by long-standing preoccupations with African birth-rates and a dystopic image of ‘coming anarchy’.

The problem is generally considered to be that there won’t be enough jobs for this swelling demographic; as a consequence of being ‘idle’ and unemployed, the restless youth could, in the words of a recent article on the UN’s Africa Renewal website, fuel the ‘fire of political violence and civil unrest’.

Young people in the West (with the notable exception of the ‘urban youth’) have the luxury of being depicted in empathetic terms: as rebellious or uncouth millennials, naïvely challenging the world. But this generous interpretation doesn’t extend to Africa: a landscape of dangerous and now, in the era of Somali Islamists Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, ‘radicalized’ young people, who are regularly portrayed as a ‘ticking time bomb’ or ‘peril’.

The bulge discourse is also used to attack African women for continuing the very African folly of being too fertile – a longstanding colonial trope. As a 2012 billboard from the Uganda Health Marketing Group put it: ‘256,700 youths can’t find jobs every year: smaller families will improve our quality of life.’

Solutions offered by the UN, African Development Bank and national governments to the youth bulge talk about how to return a ‘demographic dividend’ from this vast reserve of potential labour. One suggestion, from the World Bank and UN Development Programme, is that African youth should engage in agriculture. But it offers nothing on how young people will access land owned by elites.

The solutions pushed by multilateral institutions and their African partners always seek to enrol youth in mini-capitalist ventures while ignoring structural change; they never talk about shifting power from landowner to tenant, from ruler to ruled, from adult to young.

In Kenya, where over 70 per cent of the population is under 35, young people only feature as a solution when they become vectors of social entrepreneurship (read: neoliberal foot soldiers), or join government training programmes such as the pseudo-military National Youth Service (NYS). Kenyan youth have smartly encapsulated this tendency with the mantra, kazi kwa vijana na pesa kwa wazee (‘jobs for young people and money for the adults’).

'The bulge discourse is used to attack African women for the very African folly of being too fertile'

And what jobs are on offer here? As a young unemployed Kenyan recently asked me, what’s the point of a programme to ‘empower youth’ that only employs them as street sweepers and small-scale construction workers?

If all African elites can think of is letting the youth become self-employed boda boda (taxi) drivers, dairy farmers and sweepers then they are showing an extreme lack of attention to what young people are asking for: rights to education, land distribution and a fairer economic system.

Young Africans are pushing against the narrative that frames them as a threatening bulge. Groups like LUCHA (Struggle for Change) in Congo and Y’en a Marre (We’ve had enough) in Senegal are using protest, art and everyday mobilizations to reconfigure the status quo.

As they do this, they chart their own future: one that sees young people as neither a security risk nor a resource for neoliberal exploitation. It is these movements – for water, land and inclusive political and economic systems – that suggest a ‘demographic time-bomb’ may be just what the continent needs.

Wangui Kimari is an urban anthropologist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Banner image: Jenny Matthews / Panos and Valerie Hinojosa (Creative Commons)