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Kenya’s biggest problem: its young men

In all the scenes of mayhem, chaos and looting we have observed over the past few weeks, one fact is inescapable. In virtually every case, the trouble-makers are young males. Older men, and women in general, have little interest in burning, harming, killing or general disorder. That is an affliction peculiar to the young male.

The Economist magazine agrees. It recently pointed out a burning similarity between Kenya and Gaza: too many young men without jobs or prospects. The resulting violence should not be surprising. The magazine estimates that there are more than 4 million males in Kenya’s 15-24 age-group. Many of those are unemployed or at least under-employed. That’s a lot of boys with a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of frustration to release.

And so our young men, from all sides of the political divide, can be seen strutting through the hotspots of Kenya’s crisis, carrying the trademark pangas and starting their trademark fires. What is more startling is that they rarely seem to be traumatised; if anything, they appear to be elated by what they are doing: wrecking, ruining, scarring, destroying.

The thrill of belonging to a ’cause’ has possessed these young roosters. There is a primordial macho buzz that comes from being in a gang of one’s fellows, taking on those ‘others’. Things that would normally be morally reprehensible seem very attractive to these gangs. There is a glee they get from pulling things down and ruining the work of others.

This aggressive streak is present, let us admit, in most males of that age group across the globe. If you doubt it, you merely need to be present on the streets of a British city late on a Friday night. Our young bulls have merely taken it a stage further.

As many have pointed out, however, the bigger problem concerns why these young males have nothing better to do. And that is where the rest of us come in. In 2003, we had a Narc government. (Remember that one? It had Kibaki, Raila, Kalonzo, Karua, Kimunya, Nyong’o, Ngilu and Balala on the same side! And Ruto, Kosgey, Mudavadi, Nyachae, Kilonzo and Uhuru on the other. Today’s political conflict is neither old nor deep.)

Anyway, that government came in promising half-a-million jobs for these very youngsters, every year. But, like most other promises made by that bunch, that one too met the winds of expediency. We were told that the jua kali sector would happily clock up those jobs every year. We were not told that those jobs were unskilled, underpaid and insecure.

It should now be very, very clear to us that young men accumulating in slums and towns with not much to do is a very, very dangerous phenomenon. The ‘army’ of unemployed very easily becomes an army: a mob for hire, ready to do the bidding of any devious politician. The ’cause’, where it exists, need not be terribly profound: a vague sense of injustice is enough to ignite madness.

The bigger danger is that these gangs and militias, once gathered and unleashed, are difficult to disperse again. They take on a life of their own, as we have seen in Nairobi’s slums, and in our troubled townships. Gang leaders emerge, and protectionist rackets become the order of the day.

It really is time to think about this more intelligently. Millions of young males cannot be left without a stake in the country, otherwise they will drive a stake through its heart. Let us learn from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in America, which involved a nation-wide series of government programmes to bring the economy out of depression. Our depression, thus far, is more emotional than economic, but the problem is just as pressing.

Of course, the world has moved on since Roosevelt’s time and so we would do things a little differently. We would address funding differently, and we would involve the private sector much more. We would use taxation and incentives to ignite private initiatives, rather than engage in massive government programmes.

But the bottom line is clear: we must have our young men gainfully employed: in agro-processing; in call-centres; in factories; in public works; wherever numbers are large. Policy measures that stimulate this employment are not beyond our collective intelligence. America’s New Deal brought the unemployment rate down from 25 per cent to under 2 per cent in ten years.

That is what society must do. But what of the young men themselves? To them I would say this: your anger and your hormones may be in control of your life, but you don’t have to be a moron at the same time. Life is not conquered with brute force, nor is any gain made through destruction. Our job on earth is to create and procreate, not to undo the work of others. You will succeed by releasing the mind and the spirit, not by releasing the destructive force of the body. Think about that, when you have a moment.

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