By Peter Wanyonyi
Nature seems to have quietly conspired to make Africa a very difficult continent to develop. Looking at the continent from a satellite photo, one is struck by two features: the vastness of the Sahara at the top of the continent, the world’s largest desert, which effectively cuts Africa off from Europe and Asia; and the narrowness of continent below the Sahara. These seem like mere geographical happenstances, but in them lie the seeds of the difficulty in Africa’s development quest. Zoom in and you are confronted by a combination of natural features that make Africa a nightmare to domesticate.
Africa’s geography on the ground is a combination of jungle-covered mountains and valleys, steep plateaus, barren deserts and semi-deserts, and malarial swamps harbouring some of the deadliest pathogens known to man. Of necessity, the beasts that have evolved in this punishing environment are almost freakishly hostile to human contact: the African buffalo is virtually untameable – unlike the Asian water buffalo, whose massive frame turned it into a tractor for the Middle East’s ancient agricultural enterprises; the African elephant was of no use to pre-colonial Africans because it, too, could not be tamed – unlike the Indian elephant, which was an indispensable war machine and farming tool in South East Asia; and the only species of horse native to Africa is the flighty zebra, which has evolved under constant threat from lions, leopards and cheetahs – not to mention hyenas – and whose first instinct is, therefore, to stampede in massive herds, lacking the solitary stoicism necessary to be a war horse or even an ordinary transport beast of burden.
But nature wasn’t finished with Africa yet. The continent, unlike Europe and Asia, lacks natural deep-water harbours and naturally navigable rivers, making meaningful trade an illusion, and effective self-defence impossible. Indeed, it is only South Africa and Angola that have anything like useful natural harbours deep enough to take ocean-going vessels and yet sheltered enough to keep catastrophic storms at bay.
Africa’s development challenges are compounded at national levels. European colonists came into Africa and, unaware or uncaring of the challenges that the continent faces, crafted countries that followed generic lines of latitude: African countries are generally north-to-south rather than east-to-west. This seemingly innocent fact is responsible for some interesting geopolitical realities. The largest country in the world, Russia, crosses a vast 11 time zones – yet is coherent enough to be a single country answering to one capital city.
Take a closer look closer at Russia or, for that matter, most wealthy countries, and one interesting factor becomes clear: these countries are generally east to west, rather than north to south. East to west countries tend to lie in one or two climate zones, and climate defines economic behaviour: agriculture, trade, military alliances. People that live within the same climatic zones grow similar crops and face similar problems – and are thus likely to communicate easier and to cooperate easier, since they have similar lifestyles. A potato farmer in Nakuru faces almost exactly the same climatic and social issues as a potato farmer in Kitale, and will have similar social and political values. This is why, historically, information flows happen along lines of longitude – from east to west and vice versa – rather than from north to south.
But while it is easy to see the similarities between a farmer in the Rift Valley in Kenya and a farmer in Congo on the same longitude, latitudes are different: barely 200km north of Kitale is Turkana County, where the locals are as different from the Kitale folks as night is from day – different climate has led to different foods, different cultures, different values. Travel south from, say, Kakamega and 90km away is Kisumu; different people, different cultures, and different values. But what does all this have to do with youth unemployment? Plenty.
Because African countries were generally drawn on maps as north-south entities, they have borders that crammed several climatic zones into the same country. Kenya encompasses the arid Cushitic and Nilotic north, the fertile Bantu band in the middle, and the patchy savannah to the south, historically inhabited by wildlife. Without expansive arable plains, Kenya has never been able to produce enough food for its population. Without navigable rivers, we cannot transport food around, so trade networks have never taken root. Without such transportation of food and related goods, capital generation is impossible beyond very basic levels within self-contained regions. As a result, poverty is and will continue to be widespread.
Concerted, focused political efforts could make a difference – but the same factors that make it difficult to generate and accumulate capital also made human interaction in what is now Kenya historically difficult. As a result, the social and political cultures that have evolved in Kenya are radically different. The Nilotes and Cushites in Kenya have generally been livestock herders or fishermen, and were therefore socially cultured to demand equitable access to pasture, fishing grounds, and water for their herds. Any attempts at denying them access to these facilities resulted in war, which was an economically advantageous conflict-resolution mechanism for them: when your life revolves around herding livestock, you can simply move them to another place should war arise. You therefore have very little incentive to develop peaceful conflict-resolution mechanisms – unlike a crop farmer, who cannot uproot his crops and move with them and therefore has a massive economic incentive to negotiate with potential adversaries, and who needs to accumulate the wealth needed to pay off such adversaries should need arise.
Traditionally, Africa was beset by diseases and had little in the way of proper medical care, meaning that the youth population was largely kept in check by infant and youth mortalities. The introduction of Western medicine, as well as the presence of humanitarian aid from the West, has ensured that such deaths are reduced to a minimum. The result has been a burgeoning population which, at the moment, is very young: 25 per cent of Kenya’s population is working-age youth. Of these 10 million young people, 70pc are unemployed. And therein lies Kenya’s enormous demographic challenge, for this huge population is both a blessing and a curse.
For one, because of the geographical challenges of Kenya and Africa, we are unable to feed them. Every year, Kenya requires food aid to meet its large and growing food needs. Even with such aid, a large part of the population still goes hungry, thanks in part to runaway corruption in our public sector. But second and more important, the historical inability of Kenya to create enough trade has translated into an inability to create employment. In traditional society, idle young men could be absorbed into agricultural work in the Bantu regions, and into standing warrior-herder armies among the Cushites and Nilotes. These options are no longer open though, because mechanised agriculture, reduced meaningful landholdings and State security have taken over those roles.
We now have millions of young people, most with good educational qualifications, sitting idle and doing odd jobs in the casual work factories of Nairobi and other urban centres, living in slums and growing ever more disillusioned.
Ordinarily, they would voice their dissatisfaction by making political choices that cater to their needs – but, being Kenya, even this avenue has been taken away from them, thanks to our persistent electoral fraud. The youth vote for one person, only to see a different one take power. This, added to the lack of employment and the inability to access capital in any meaningful way, has built up frustration to a point where it is now unsustainable. We are beginning to see some of the results of this build-up.
On December 7, 2015, an American named Maalik Alim Jones was captured by Somali government forces in the coastal Somali city of Baraawe, where he had joined the Al-Shabaab terrorist outfit. He was handed over to American forces and ended up in court in Manhattan on December 19, 2015, charged with, inter alia, “…conspiracy to provide material support to al-Shabaab and possessing, carrying, and using firearms during and in relation to a crime of violence”.
Under questioning, Jones revealed a hitherto unknown dimension of the Al-Shabaab: they were recruiting Kenyan youths, not using religious ideology, but using money. Each Al-Shabaab fighter is paid a salary of Sh10,000 a month, he said under oath. Subsequent questioning of other Al-Shabaab recruits has backed his testimony: the terror outfit lures unemployed youths by promising – and paying – them a regular monthly salary, training them, and putting them in what the recruits see as “meaningful work”. After all, it pays the bills and occupies what would be idle time for them!
It is now estimated that over a quarter of al-Shabaab fighters are Kenyan citizens. Young Kenyans across the traditional Muslim heartlands of the country from the Coast to the North and even into the Western parts of the country are finding ample cause and attraction to join such outfits because most have little else to do – they lack jobs, they are unable to access state resources due to our corrupt patronage networks that thrive on tribalism and “being connected”, and they are unable to start a business because they lack capital and cannot compete with the corrupt political business outfits that run the country.
This, then, is our demographic challenge: our large and growing population of unemployed youth has morphed from an economic problem to a very real security headache. And it’s getting worse.
Successive governments have done little to alleviate the chronic poverty and unemployment that continue to plague Kenya, and whose effects are felt worst by the youth. Initiatives meant to help youth find meaningful occupations in business or employment – like the National Youth Service and the Youth Enterprise Development Fund – have recently been found to be riddled with corruption and to be nothing more than conduits for politicians to steal public monies. The few jobs that these initiatives create are doled out on a tribal basis, locking youth from 40 tribes out of the reckoning.
Pushed into desperation
It’s not for nothing that the international anti-corruption agency, Transparency International (TI), ranks Kenya the fourth most corrupt country in the world. What look like efforts to set up loans and job facilities for young people are in fact little more than stealing avenues for the well-connected – in the words of one young Kenyan musician, “Kazi kwa vijana, pesa kwa wazee.” As this continues, more young people are pushed into desperation, and thence into gangs, and terrorist outfits, and political militias. Perhaps a generation on from now, when it’s too late and Kenya has dissolved into civil strife and tribal genocide, we will look back and see the signs that we refuse to see today for what they actually portend: the irreversible decay and inevitable decline of a society whose leadership pays lip service to the need to create jobs for the youth and run the country for the good of all, all while indulging in ever more gluttonous corruption.
Writer is an Information Systems professional based in New Zealand