The heinous terrorist attack on 14 Riverside Drive in January 2019, that took the lives of 21 people brought out two key messages: that Kenya is much better prepared to respond to such crises, and that Africa must urgently address the drivers of extremism among youth. 

Today’s youth are more educated than any previous generation. However, this has rarely translated into economic opportunities.

What is driving the youth to join violent extremist groups?

A quarter of young people in Africa are out of work and education often leads to unfulfilled expectations. A recent study by the UNDP, Journey to Extremism in Africa, concluded that poverty, unemployment, and underemployment were major sources of frustration identified by those who joined violent extremist groups.

Another study, Youth & Consequences: Unemployment, Injustice and Violence, of youth in Afghanistan, Colombia and Somalia by Mercy Corps concluded that, “the principal drivers of political violence are rooted not in poverty, but in experiences of injustice: discrimination, corruption and abuse by security forces”.

Whether misled or forced with false promises, threats or exploitation of grievances, youth are increasingly lured by violent extremist organizations globally.

US Ambassador to Kenya - Kyle McCarter US Ambassador to Kenya - Kyle McCarter

Kenya like the rest of Africa is experiencing a huge bulge with over 70% of its population being less than 30 years, an opportunity to reap a demographic dividend.

But if Kenya does not act, the dividend risks becoming a demographic disaster as large numbers of unemployed, unemployable, and frustrated youth fall prey to the blandishments and falsehoods spread by extremist groups.

Projections indicate that the powder keg that is disenchanted youth will continue to burgeon as more of them leave school without the basic skills to advance their lives. 

With the largest number of jobless youth in East Africa, Kenya should lead the way in investing in the sectors with highest growth potential, to utilize the potential of young people and, by so doing, accelerate economic growth and development. Education structures and systems must provide students with future-proof and marketable skill sets for today and tomorrow.

How will President Uhuru Kenyatta's Big Four Agenda help create jobs?

Kenya has made the right public policy move through the introduction of the Big 4 development agenda. This can have a multiplier effect on the SDGs, be transformative to Kenya’s economy and ensure jobs for the 1 million young people who join the labor force every year. 

No sector rivals agribusiness in potential for high growth, and the African Union has correctly recognised agriculture as the driving force of social and economic transformation.

 Of particular interest is the situation of youth in hard to reach areas such as the arid and semi-arid lands, who are increasingly disgruntled by dim prospects of good jobs. In such areas, traditional livestock farming can be transformed into a quality-driven, export-targeting industry. This calls for investments in education, rural transport and electricity, and smart business and trade policies. 

​In his acceptance speech as the global champion of the youth agenda called the Generation Unlimited, at the UN General Assembly in 2018, President Kenyatta said progress for the youth means progress for all of humanity.

We do not champion the cause of youth opportunity and hope as a favour, but rather as the necessary, undeniable embrace of our collective future. We must give young people education, and employment opportunities if our societies are to live up to their full promise,” he stated.

UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya - Siddharth Chatterjee UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya - Siddharth Chatterjee

The government is already working with partners such as the UN and private sector players to develop holistic, long-term programs to enable young people to develop, advance and achieve their full human potential.

 The United States supports both broader youth development goals as well as more targeted efforts to strengthen government and community-level capacity to prevent youth radicalization. For example, programs seek to disrupt recruitment by raising awareness among parents and families and through a CVE mentorship program that provides youth with positive role models.

Such initiatives will be among the topics to be discussed in July 2019 in an Africa-wide conference on preventing and countering violent extremism, which will be hosted by Kenya and the UN. This conference will also be driven by our understanding that economic issues represent only one aspect that drives youth to embrace terrorism, and that together we must also re-commit to addressing the political, security, and ideological drivers that propel terrorism across the continent.

For these reasons, now more than ever, young people must take their rightful place at the centre of the development narrative across Africa.

Kyle McCarter is the US Ambassador to Kenya. Siddharth Chatterjee is the UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya.