African youth activists called on the international community Wednesday to view the 220 million young people on their continent as a positive force for change, not a problem requiring solutions.
“We must change the narrative about African youth to become a narrative of collective, positive actors, among the most informed, the most resilient generation of Africa,” said Aya Chebbi, the African Union’s special envoy on youth.
The growing youth population is often viewed as a potential time bomb for the continent, as governments struggle to provide education and good jobs to the millions of young people seeking a better life. Recruitment by armed groups and migration away from the continent have increased, as the root causes of hopelessness are not adequately addressed.
Youth envoy Chebbi, a Tunisian national who had large cutouts of African continents dangling from her earlobes, told the U.N. Security Council that negative narratives can be dangerous.
“It is disempowering,” Chebbi said. “Many young people have internalized the idea that they are marginalized and now see these violent groups as legitimate fighters, not perpetrators of violence. So we have to value our youth and their contribution to society; they will look for recognition elsewhere if we don’t.”
“If the right investments in youth are made, and their social, political and economic engagement recognized and nurtured, societies may reap a peace dividend,” said the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on Africa Bience Gawanas.
She noted that across the continent the youth are demanding urgent action and are making their voices heard.
“From Algeria, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Tunisia and Zimbabwe, young people are at the center of pro-democracy movements, effectively mobilizing, organizing, leading and clamoring for inclusive and accountable governance, youth participation and economic opportunities for all,” she said.
Wednesday’s Security Council debate was convened around the African Union initiative to ‘silence the guns by 2020’ and end conflict on the continent. It coincided with the International Day for Non-violence.
“We want youth to give up the guns, but can we answer the big question in the mind of a 19 or 20 year-old: Who am I? What are we offering them?” Youth envoy Chebbi asked.
Hafsa Ahmed, 27, joined the meeting via a video link from Nairobi, Kenya, where she is a co-founder of the NGO Naweza.
She said African youth face “deep rooted obstacles” to meaningful participation in peacebuilding efforts, which are traditionally the domain of the older generation.
“When young people are involved and brought to the table, it is often tokenistic and our needs and interests are often reduced to issues of education and employment, when we actually have diverse needs as youth -- and the capacity to contribute to the biggest challenges facing our communities and our world,” Ahmed said.
Ugandan activist Victor Ochen recounted how many of his dreams were ruined because his childhood was spent in an internally-displaced persons camp. He told council members via video from Kampala that he made the conscious decision not to be recruited at a time when young boys around him were targeted.
“I was pondering whether picking up the gun to fight was the way to go, but something in me kept on telling me war is not option, you need an end to suffering, picking up the gun will only escalate suffering,” Ochen said. “I chose peace.”
At the age of 13 he started a peace club in the IDP camp to discourage recruitment of child soldiers. He later went on to found the African Youth Initiative Network to transform trauma into an opportunity for leadership and build peace.
“I can say it is very difficult for something good to come out of a life of conflict,” he said.
He urged governments to improve the quality of life for their citizens, address inter-ethnic issues and called on the international community to abandon sanctions, saying they do not work against the state as intended, but affect ordinary people.