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Volume 11 Number 3
1 September 2002

The past year has been unprecedented in Africa for the commitments to disarmament that have emerged out of seemingly irreconcilable conflicts. January 2002 saw the end of the ten-year civil war and the disarmament and demobilisation of government, paramilitary and rebel forces in Sierra Leone, among them some 5,000 children and thousands more young adults. The death of Jonas Savimbi in Angola brought about a ceasefire that left even the most seasoned analysts startled, and high hopes still ride on the beleaguered Inter-Congolese dialogue.

One element of peace building remains in need of urgent attention, if millions of war-affected children and youth are not to be left with a deep sense of betrayal at the sacrifice of their childhoods and of educational and economic opportunities to warfare. Young combatants also recognise their own ambiguous status as both victims and perpetrators of violence in the eyes of their communities and families. Yet small, precious exercises in youth and child participation in conflict resolution are cause for enormous optimism. This is not a generation turned barbaric by casual familiarity with arms and violence, nor rendered amoral by the corruption and social disintegration that has taken place around them. Research on former child and youth combatants reveals a generation demanding to go to school, to learn vocations, to speak for themselves and to define their own peace on their own terms. The Special Session on Children held by the UN General Assembly in May of this year set an important precedent for the political participation of children. It can only be hoped that governments follow through on their commitments to a ‘world fit for children` and in establishing permanent political forums where frank dialogue can occur between generations.

The ‘generation gap` rings familiar because intergenerational discord, albeit in many forms, is universal. But the difference between youthful rebellion in war-torn Africa and youthful rebellion in the industrialised world is that the latter permits safe expression: within the family, the community, the school, on the university campus. These are the structures in a peaceful society that guide youth and protect them from ‘adult` moral and political consequences of less-than-mature actions. This is not to say that African youth in war-ravaged countries are naturally drawn to violence; it suggests that their lives are not circumscribed in safe, socially sanctioned arenas, leaving them vulnerable to involvement, both coerced and voluntary in warfare. This represents nothing less than a fundamental inability on the part of families, communities and states to protect the young. In the case of governments, it can enable rotten, myopic regimes to cling to power. For rebel movements, it can represent a seemingly bottomless reserve of manpower harnessed to achieve control through violence.

Ironically, many young Africans may have reason to say ‘we are angry and desperate for change`, but this frustration is rarely channelled positively. The ambiguity of youth allows a generation to become pawns in a deceptive game that appears to polarise civilisation against barbarism; one in which youth, associated with conflicts that no longer distinguish between civilian and military targets seem forever to emerge from the barbarian corner. Predictably, we are only invited to listen to the voices of the youngest victims of the worst atrocities. The voices of youth (for those over 18) issue forth from the wrong side of international law and the grey area of popular appeal. The political will of the rest is rarely examined at close range: it is much easier to single out the unambiguous victims (and ignore the rest who are invariably youth, if not all under 18) and label the whole state of affairs inhuman, incomprehensible and hopeless. But categorising them squarely as victims or perpetrators on the basis of age alone overlooks the vulnerability inherent in the transitional periods of adolescence and young adulthood. More importantly, it overlooks the potential of youth as stakeholders in peace processes.

Sustainable peace in Africa will not be possible without insight into the political consciousness of youth, any more than democracy is possible without the expression of the will of the majority. We can no longer rely solely on that small segment of the population with political power to act on behalf of majorities without political voices. Whether youth have been agents or instruments of violence is not the question that needs to be asked. What is important is that analyses and interventions take into account the ‘youth factor` and its impact on governance, human rights, management of state resources, political dissent and organised violence. So long as this does not happen, generational exclusion will carry on: a dangerous state of affairs where the majority is young. A staggering 51% of the population of Uganda is under the age of 14, in contrast to Canada`s 18.95%. The Democratic Republic of Congo follows closely with 48.24%, compared to some 18% in Sweden and other Nordic countries. While life expectancies in developed countries reach the 80s, they rarely exceed 50 in most of sub-Saharan Africa. The resulting population pyramids make the ratios of potential care-givers and taxpayers to children dramatically different on this continent. The ‘voices of children` we heard so much at the Special Session on Children take on a new importance in Africa: they are the voices of a majority that cannot vote, yet represent much of the human potential of this continent.

As for youth in post-war societies, when the war ends, the real conflict resolution begins. As the international peace mission in Sierra Leone draws to a close, local exercises in reconciliation are only beginning. Former combatants face the challenge of social and economic reintegration carrying the stigma and scars of a violent past. People forced to flee confront the destruction of their homes and livelihoods and the desecration of their lands. The momentum of day-to-day acts of reconciliation between ordinary citizens needs to outrun, by far, the momentum of the worst moments of violent destruction. The energy and potential of youth must be co-opted for peace many times more so than it was for warfare.

This issue of the African Security Review is dedicated in part to the subject of children in armed conflict. Interact, the research project at the Institute for Security Studies, takes what might seem to the child advocacy community an unconventional approach to the subject. ‘Politics, war and youth culture in Sierra Leone: An alternative interpretation` looks at the involvement of children and youth in the war between the Revolutionary United Front and the state in Sierra Leone, analyses earlier explanations of its nature and trajectory and offers what we hope will be some new insight into this important stakeholder in peace building. Rachel Stohl`s article ‘Under the gun: Children and small arms` is a comprehensive overview of the impact of the proliferation of small arms and the implications for children in warfare, an important subject in light of the epidemic of ‘arms for resources` deals that effectively discount the futures of young people. In the essay section of this issue, ‘African youth in warfare: Challenges for a young continent` attempts a conceptual shift in the way we perceive young Africans by examining what could be called their ‘generational identity`; the political, social and economic factors that allow youth to be co-opted so easily into political and military agendas. Jenny Clover`s article on the cost of war to Angolan children takes stock of the devastation that this conflict has wreaked on the society and brings to light the enormity of the task of reconstruction.

In seeking to understand the nature of youth involvement in conflicts in Africa, we hope to call attention to the need to bring war-affected children and youth, having for so long been treated as a non-military, non-political ‘soft` issue, back into the broader security debate.

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