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Growing Number of Unemployed West African Youths Turn to Violence


In many parts of West Africa, as in much of the developing world, the youth population is growing fast, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the total. But these young people face dismal job prospects even in countries that are rich with natural resources. Without a secure livelihood, the youth have become easy recruits for insurgencies in West Africa.

At dusk, near Abidjan's international airport, pro-presidential militia members flex their muscles and jog around the Akwaba or "Welcome" statue of Ivory Coast.

They are known locally as the GPP - Group for Patriotism and Peace.

Sitting at a lagoon-side café, their leader, Moussa Toure Zeguen, explains the reason for their existence.

"We are fighting as Ivorians, as somebody who is conscious of what our country, what our continent is in," he said. "So what we are doing since our young years, in school, or at university is to contribute to democracy in our country for fairness, for justice. I believe that anybody who is aware of the situation has to do something."

For the GPP, that includes fighting what they view as foreign-backed rebels, as well as intimidating immigrants in the government-run south.

Ivory Coast has been divided in two since a northern rebel insurgency began in late 2002 against elected President Laurent Gbagbo. Forces from the former colonial power, France, were called in to prevent more fighting, but their deployment along a cease-fire line effectively divided the country in two.

Successive peace deals have not been implemented, with rebels refusing to disarm until they are given assurances more northerners are given the right to become Ivorian and vote. Many northerners are the descendants of Muslim immigrants from outlying countries who came to work in Ivory Coast's lush cocoa fields, and now live in limbo without any national identity.

Across the U.N.-patrolled front line of the conflict, in the northwestern rebel city of Man, the chants and jogging style of fighters here are nearly identical to those heard in the south of the country.

One of their leaders, known as Las-Com, explains why he left his studies and girlfriend in Abidjan to fight with the northern-based rebels.

"I decided because some situation appeared to me, because I'm from the north," he explained. "Regarding my name, Mara Lassine, a policeman will tell me at a checkpoint in Abidjan, 'Mara Lassine, he's not an Ivorian, where are you coming from? No.' That's why when some people are fighting to give legal rights to everybody, I say they are okay. I prefer letting down my life, letting down my mother, let everything, to join those people, to fight for justice, liberty and equality."

Access to resources, definitions of nationality in relatively new countries, ethnically based profiling, changing rules about who can run for office, these are problems ripping apart communities across West Africa and pushing educated youth here into rebellion and the bush.

The conflict in Ivory Coast also coincided with the first generation of a widely educated and urbanized youth, who left rural areas but found little formal employment in cities.

Mara says he is sacrificing for the next generation.

"Today, you do some war, you do your fighting, for the children," he said. "Today, we have some problems, education for our children, we have some social, humanitarian problems. We have some social problems. You will see that in the city. We need to go to peace. But before going to peace, you need to have some solution to problems, reasons why we take weapons. That's very important."

For him, that means getting voting cards for many northerners now considered foreigners. But for supporters of President Laurent Gbagbo, that would mean Mr. Gbagbo would lose in the next election, and that his efforts for true independence from the former colonial power France, would be lost.

"We must fight. We are the freedom fighters," said one speaker. "We are the Young Patriots. Our fight, our wrestling is to free Africa."

Speaker after speaker spurs on a lively lunch crowd in downtown Abidjan at this public place known as La Sorbonne.

One of the organizers, Olivier Greto Zoue, blames the French for Ivory Coast's problems.

He says he believes the civil war started because, "France can smell oil in Ivorian waters and they want someone they can control in the presidency." He says that's how it is with civil wars in Africa.

Zoue is part of the Young Patriots, a group of both armed and unarmed civilians who take to the streets whenever Mr. Gbagbo's power seems under threat. United Nations peacekeepers killed several of them recently in the city of Guiglo, after they stormed a U.N. base.

Their leaders, including Charles Ble Goude, get tens of thousands of dollars and cars from the presidency. When protests take place, participants can expect $10 every day, free tee-shirts, plus food and drinks, served by so-called lady patriots.

Recent Ivorian newspaper reports allege cocoa cooperatives paid about $15,000 to help fund anti-U.N. protests in January, something their officials have denied.

Rebel supporters have their own heated political gatherings in immigrant neighborhoods of Abidjan. These are called "grain". Tea is served and discussions center around their own protest actions.

Their protests usually face harsh repression from security forces, unlike those of the Young Patriots, which are encouraged.

All these groups usually split into competing factions, with everyone trying to get their hands on money from party leaders and government ministers, who send them out on the streets or in the bush when they need them.

But Jeff Agba says this is nonsense. He was previously a pro-presidential GPP militia leader. He was kicked out after saying youth should no longer be cannon fodder for greedy politicians.

"The youngest, now, all they need is development, good health," he said. "They need education and they don't understand politics, they don't need politics. But what I'm seeing in the new movements, the new generation needs politics to understand their life. No! They need education without politics because politics is not an education, it's a game. It's lying to people to be [greedy]. So we don't need that. They need peace, freedom and to have a job, yes, more jobs, to be happy, that's all we need."

Agba has traded in his militia fatigues for a suit and tie, and now uses his education to be a micro-credit lender at a local bank, rather than a political youth leader setting tires on fire. He says he hopes he can start a new pattern, to break the cycle of violence to which so many frustrated youth of Africa fall victim.

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