African Experiences of Youth in Political Violence – Reflections on Zimbabwe

by Paul Bradfield

History tells us that politically motivated violence occurs in every society at some point during its existence. Be it in time of independence or rebellion, young people invariably play a role in perpetrating acts of violence. Indeed, in weak and emerging societies, political leaders sometimes play a subversive role in manipulating and mobilising young people to violently realise and further their own political objectives.

Mobilising youth to commit political violence is not an inherently African problem, but is common in many societies around the world. With the recent elections in Zimbabwe, this post takes a deeper look at the mobilisation of African youth in political violence.

no raila

ODM supporters protest following the 2007 Kenyan elections. (Photo: nipate.com)

Young men and women get involved in violence for diverse and context-specific reasons. The prevailing theme in the commentary on youth and violence is that exclusion and lack of opportunities faced by young people leads to disillusionment and, in some cases, their participation in violence. Unemployment, insufficient educational opportunities, poor governance and social marginalisation can lead to the deep disaffection of youth in society, increasing the likelihood of them resorting to anti-social activity and engagement in violence.

However, it is important to recognise that there are many contexts where youth suffer from high levels of exclusion but do not participate in violence. One may ask, what distinguishes those who are mobilised from those who remain on the periphery? Analysing other African contexts of political violence from which Zimbabwe may learn, there are a number of discernible factors that, taking into account the above-mentioned underlying conditions of social exclusion, can lead to youth being mobilised to engage in violence.

  • Forced recruitment: Many young people participate in violence because they are forced to, through techniques including abduction and indoctrination. The decades-long civil war in northern Uganda was artificially prolonged through the incessant abduction of children who were forced to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army. Similarly, in the conflict in eastern DRC, the use of child soldiers remains an essential military stratagem by rebel groups such as M-23 and the FDLR.

    Child Soldiers in the Lord's Resistance Army

    Child Soldiers in the Lord’s Resistance Army (Photo: Invisible Children)

  • Identity politics: Young people may be drawn to defend their own ethnic base or political ideologies through the use of violence. In Rwanda, thousands of disaffected Hutu youth, known as interhamwe, were infamously mobilised through the use of political propaganda and hate-inspiring media during the 1994 genocide, to catastrophic effect.
  • Political events: Elections and political events may trigger acts of violence, particularly when underlying ethnic and social tensions are already extant. In early 2008, the disputed election results in Kenya led to running battles between the tribal support bases of the opposing political blocs – the Party of National Unity (PNU) and the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) – resulting in over a thousand deaths. The Mungiki, a notorious gang which draws its members largely from the Kikuyu ethnic group, were responsible for orchestrating widespread violence during the post-election period, mobilising unemployed and disaffected youth from impoverished areas to carry out acts of violence, in retaliation for violent acts committed by pro-ODM youth, largely comprised of the Kalenjin. That the two previously warring ethnic blocs in 2008 – the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin – now share executive power in Kenya following the 2013 election, shows how malleable political and tribal differences can be in African societies.
  • Organisational Dynamics: In order to maintain existing power structures, political bodies may employ strategies of recruiting marginalised young people and socialising them in norms of violence, incentivising them by appealing to their desire for status, identity and group cohesion. In previous elections in Zimbabwe, a standard tactic of the ZANU-PF political machine was to recruit and indoctrinate disaffected young people into its youth wing, mobilising them to intimidate and attack voters and political opponents.
Zanu PF Youth

Members of the Zanu PF youth group, known as ‘Chipangano’ (meaning ‘the brotherhood’ in local slang) perform at Robert Mugabe’s 89th birthday celebrations on 2 March 2013. (Photo: AP)

In many African societies, young people have been the victims of policy neglect and excluded from decision-making processes. When patriarchal power structures exclude young people, violence can often be a way of venting frustration, seizing control and making an impact. Unfortunately, the prevailing stereotype of youth involvement in African politics is that of the party-political thug and violent acolyte who may be mobilised during election periods to intimidate political opponents and voters. Analyses of recent episodes of political violence in Africa show that youth are manipulated and mobilised when needed, but otherwise marginalised and ignored by the political elite, especially when it comes to addressing the root causes of their social exclusion, in particular the systemic failures in educational and economic development.

recurrent electoral strategy of ZANU-PF since the 1980’s has been the political mobilisation of unemployed youth, mostly males, and sometimes women, to attack opposition supporters and their property. Zimbabwe’s 2008 election was no different, with the country submerged by a wave of state-sponsored violence and intimidation in the run-up to the Presidential election. Many young men became involved in quasi-military groups, such as the ZANU-PF youth militias, who were at the forefront of committing acts of violence. Moreover, the perpetrators of violence were the beneficiaries of police inaction or party protection, further engendering a culture of political impunity.

Though the Zimbabwean economy has improved since the dark days of hyper-inflation, economic and educational opportunities for young people remain extremely limited. While social exclusion of young people has undoubtedly been a factor in Zimbabwe’s experience of youth in political violence, the principal driver has been the degree to which their engagement in violence has been actively promoted and sanctioned by the ruling party. Clearly, youth are seen as crucial actors in realising political goals. If political leaders can rapidly and effectively mobilise youth to become violent agents of political change on a widespread scale, then equally it should follow that youth can be mobilised to become peaceful participants in political processes, the legitimacy of which are irreversibly tainted when violence informs the ultimate result.

Encouragingly, reports from Zimbabwe indicate that the 2013 election has been a relatively peaceful one, in contrast to the 2008 violence that was witnessed, although concerns do remain over its credibility. It shows that peaceful participation of youth in Zimbabwean politics can be a reality, but to prevent any possible violent relapse in the future, they must have trust and faith in the electoral system to be both free and fair.

*This post is cross-posted from the Beyond Violence blog, where it was first published on 19 July 2013.

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