AFRICA is the world’s youngest continent, and has the potential to realise the economic benefits experienced previously in other regions and countries that have undergone similar demographic shifts.
A surge in youth population leads most nations in one of two directions: Economic boom or social bust. Policy makers have argued for the urgency to create structures to give opportunity to the rapidly growing numbers of young people, without which the region risks social unrest, conflict and instability.
The relationship between large pools of idle, disaffected young men and a rise in conflict is often presented as an obvious, and inevitable risk – but research backs these sentiments.
A study from Population Action International reveals that between 1970 and 2007, 80% of all new civil conflicts occurred in countries with at least 60% of the population younger than age 30.
PAI’s findings are reinforced by empirical analysis by Henrik Urdal at the International Peace Research Institute, who found that even after controlling for level of development, regime type, total population size and past outbreaks of conflict, countries with a large “youth bulge” were 150% more likely than those with more balanced age structures to experience civil conflict in the last half of the 20th century.
The effect is particularly strong for countries with ongoing high fertility rates, as in much of Africa. While the relationship between age structure and instability is not one of simple cause and effect, the pattern is consistent.
Looking at historical data from the UN Population Division on median ages in various African countries from 1950, a number of trends emerge.
The most significant is that when a country reaches its lowest recorded median age – often between age 15 and 18 – is the time when a war or rebellion is most likely to break out.
In Eastern Africa for example, Rwanda had its youngest median age recorded in 1990, when half the population aged below 15.1. That period coincided with widespread social unrest and an insurgency, culminating in the genocide of 1994.
Burundi’s youngest median age was recorded in 1995, at 15.3. That was in the second year of a civil war that would last 12 years, only formally ending in 2005.
Eritrea’s youngest time was around 1995, two years after the end of a bitter 30-year war of independence from Ethiopia. It should have been a time for rebuilding and forging a way forward for the nascent country, but Eritrea soon plunged again into war, first with Yemen and then with its old adversary, Ethiopia over a border strip.
Due to a higher population density and relatively more developed institutions, West and North Africa has tended to reach this peak earlier than East Africa, but the trend remains the same.
Liberia was youngest in 1985 when half its population was younger than 17.3 years. In that decade, the overthrow and execution of President William Tolbert in 1980 by Sergeant Samuel Doe – aged just 29 – led to spiraling social unrest.
By the late 1980s, arbitrary rule and economic collapse culminated in civil war when Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militia overran much of the countryside, entering the capital in 1990. The war ended up lasting 13 years, until Taylor’s stepping down as president in 2003.
The same could be said of Sierra Leone, which was youngest in 1990, with a median age of 17.5. In 1991, former army corporal Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) begun a campaign against President Joseph Saidu Momoh, capturing towns on border with Liberia, sparking off a 10-year civil war.
Sudan was youngest in 1980 with a median age of 16.5 years. In three years, a civil war with the south would break out, and end up lasting 22 years.
Algeria reached its youngest median age in the early 1960s, just at the tail end of a long and brutal war of independence from France. Zimbabwe, too, was youngest in 1980, at 15.5, just as it was winning independence after a long guerilla struggle.
Restive populations - even in France
Even relatively peaceful countries have seen their most unstable and repressive eras coincide with a youth bulge, as governments try to tighten the reigns in the face of a young, restive population.
Kenya was the youngest country not just in Africa, but also in the world, between 1980 and 1985, when 50% of the population was younger than 15. The country faced its first – and only, so far – attempted coup in 1982, and the rest of that decade was characterised by widespread political repression, a contraction of civil liberties, targeting and harassment of dissidents.
Ghana too, was at its most unstable in the 1970s, when coups and counter-coups were the modus operandi of politics in the country – Kofi Busia was ousted as president in 1972 by Colonel Ignatius Acheampong, then in 1978 Acheampong was forced to resign and General Frederick Akuffo took over, and he was in turn deposed in a coup led by Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings in 1979. It also was youngest around that time, with a median age of 16.9 in 1975.
South Africa’s case is slightly different, because the extremely heavy-hand of the apartheid state was able to forcefully put a lid on restive youth, at least for a number of years.
The country was youngest in 1970 when the median age was 18.8, and it was high school students who took to the streets on 16th June 1976 to protest the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in school, the start of the Soweto uprising.
It would take nearly another 20 years for the apartheid edifice to come down, but the increasing frustration of those high school students who grew up to be young men and women in the next few years with no hope and no prospects meant that the struggle turned increasingly violent and desperate in the 1980s.
Scholars have even seen a link between youth and revolution in eighteenth-century France, a spike in population boosted demand for food, which in turn drove up inflation, reduced the purchasing power of most citizens, and sparked social unrest.
To some extent, others say the rise of fascism in Europe, and the two World Wars were due to a pool of young people, particularly in the Balkans around 1914.
Others even suggest Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s can be partially explained by its large number of youth, while others attribute Marxist insurrections in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s to the swelling population of the region’s unemployed youth (guerilla-related violence quelled as the number of young people declined).
While countries with youthful populations may achieve democracy, they are less likely to sustain it until their age structures become more balanced.
Still, demographers are quick to stress that youth bulges do not solely explain these civil conflicts—corruption, ethno-religious tensions, poverty, and poor political institutions also play contributing roles—but nor do they rule out as coincidence the tendency toward social unrest among states with large youth populations.
Angola and Somalia…are getting younger!
Today, most of Africa is getting slightly older now, having reached their youngest points a few years or decades earlier. But there are a few exceptions, and these are countries that need to be on a “revolution watch-list”.
Angola is one of the few countries in Africa that is actually getting younger; in 2010, its median age was 16.0, the youngest that the UN Population Division has recorded so far.
Uganda, too, seems to be hovering at a median age of about 15 years since 1995.
The most worrying, though, is Somalia, because it is getting younger in an environment of entrenched instability, porous borders, easy access to weapons and religious extremism. The median age was 16.1 years in 2010, compared to 17.5 years when its central government collapsed in 1991.
Sociologists say the solution is to create jobs for the youth, broaden access to family planning, and improve child survival – which reduces the need for young couples to have many children as some may not survive infancy.
But there is a darker proposal – do nothing. German sociologist and economist Gunnar Heinsohn observes, that using the violence that plagued Latin America as an example, youth-bulge-related bloodshed often burns itself out once the youths grow up or kill off one another. In a few decades, we might find that Africa has turned a corner on its conflict-ridden history.
But it may cost us many lives along the way – and the chance to reap from the demographic dividend that “Africa Rising” affords us.