There is a growing shift in how youth in Africa are being understood and the role they can play in community development and peace-building processes. This is following many years of youth being constructed as victims and villains, despite evidence of structural disinvestment, and the rare opportunity to participate in their communities. Events such as the Arab spring, the surge in violent extremism as well as the youth bulge in parts of Africa have occasioned the need for a rethink. This has necessitated the evolving of international policy frameworks (such as the UNSCR 2250) that mainstream the positive relationship between youth agency and its implications for peace, security and development. Nevertheless, there is still the paucity of an appreciation of youth engagement in community and peace-building initiatives in parts of Africa.
Youth form 60% of Africa’s population, and they are 100% its future! And while it seems that the prospects for a better situation appear distant, now is that time to prioritise youth issues and support them in channelling their agency towards social change and to see themselves as part of the solution. Hence, expanding their capacity to own and change the future of the continent should be a priority beginning now. One way of doing this is to start early by getting them to participate in community and peace initiatives and by helping them connect classroom learning with real-world situations in their communities. This holds the potential of broadening their horizon to see the world from a holistic perspective, while they also begin to think about ways to initiate change and support the realisation of the global goals.
LEAP Africa has taken the lead in filling this gap by embedding community change projects as a key component in its leadership and life skills curriculum with useful outcomes both for youth and the communities where these interventions have been implemented. During this process, teenagers are taken through the task of identifying challenges within their communities and are expected to come up with innovative ideas to solve these issues. For young people, becoming aware of their role and responsibilities to better their community is not only important for their development into adulthood but also an imperative for citizenship, patriotism, strengthening democracy and realising the aspirations of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as AU Agenda 2063.
Since 2004, LEAP Africa has supported about 5000 young change agents who have implemented over 1000 community and peace-building initiatives through its Leadership and Life Skills programme with more than 50,000 beneficiaries. This article provides an introduction into LEAP Africa’s experience by mainstreaming its meaning, relevance and implications for youth development. The articles that follow showcase some of the community and peace-building initiatives implemented by innovative young Nigerians in public Secondary Schools; teasing out the key lessons to demonstrate how youth engagement in community development and peace building processes foster citizenship, leadership and patriotism.
What does it mean to engage youth in community development and peace building processes, and why is it important?
Poverty, exclusion and vulnerability negate youth development as well as their ability to transition and contribute to society. Youth from low-income contexts, many times have to endure the hurdles of extreme physical and emotional suffering in isolation, leading them to indulge in varying forms of risky and unlawful behaviours. Amid this disadvantage, there has been a tendency for youth to be constructed as threats to peace and community development. Similarly, there are established narratives that portray youth as passive actors on social, economic and political issues, despite their demonstrated agency in change processes over time.
Unfortunately, these kinds of analysis downplay the structural conditions that limit young people by adopting a deficit approach to framing youth. While there is a gradual shift from this thinking, there is still a leaning within the academia and policy spaces to frame youth as a homogeneous group and interpret youth agency as defiance. Proponents of this understanding interpret youth from a neo-liberal lens that constructs social reality from the definitions of what is considered formal and informal, private and public or real politics and community involvement.
However, recent studies suggest that young people are not totally unconscious of the social, economic and political issues that shape their reality, neither are they passive actors in a society constructed by others. Rather they are citizens who are constantly seeking ways to engage their agency and interact with social systems, private and political institutions in non-traditional – innovative – ways.[][] The implicit notion is that our understanding of how youth agency interacts with social and public realms is fundamentally limited.[][] This notion is further reinforced by evidence emerging from grey literature which suggests that youth are changing the narrative by depicting themselves to be highly spirited, creative – socially mindful of their situations, leaping above their circumstances and inserting themselves within the core of the transformations occurring across the continent.[][][]
Although, part of the agency narrative acknowledges that young people can be equally inclined towards crime and predatory armed movements, this is often explained by their tangible despair, their search for role models and opportunities to exercise leadership and be a part of society. These possibilities and tendencies reinforce the imperative to inspire hope and a change of mindset to act as principled and value-based leaders; equip them with the knowledge, tools, skills and role models to realise and identify the attitudes that help them become complete and healthy human beings; and empower them by creating opportunities and platforms to contribute to community and peace initiatives. All these transform them into positive change agents exercising leadership and channelling their agency towards social transformation.
The experience of young people on LEAP Africa’s Leadership and Life Skills programme essentially captures how youth agency can be directed towards positive development. This is realised by inspiring, equipping and empowering them with the requirements to become effective leaders. Exposing them to leadership trainings and giving them the opportunities to practically deploy learnings helps them to develop a wealth of skills. These include their ability to communicate, take initiative, plan, organize, make decisions and positive judgments. This programme further enables young people to creatively solve community problems by working in teams, gleaning from the lens of self-awareness as well as visioning, goal setting, values and moral ethics. Young people with this skills set have proven to challenge existing norms and stereotypes that portray them as threats to peace and community development.
Providing them with the platform also affords young people with the courage to challenge structural barriers to exercise leadership and citizenship. As a result of being exposed to the workings and realities of community and peacebuilding processes, the socialisation and dominant notion that social change can only happen through political office holders are being debunked as young people begin to see themselves as critical stakeholders who can contribute to peace and development. These primarily helps to expand the scope of democratic participation in society and redefine their engagement in exercising their rights and responsibilities.
While there is still the need to further understand these intricacies, the experience of beneficiaries on LEAP Africa’s Leadership and Life Skills programme captures how young people are able to make fundamental shifts away from a needy mentality into a contribution orientation. Having been taught to think critically about the world around them, they are now able to analyse issues and are asking fundamental questions relating to sanitation and access to clean water; the availability of health care facilities and eradicating diseases; the quality of education, gender inequality and urban violence; clean energy as well as eradicating poverty and hunger. While all these issues touch on human security issues more broadly, they are important issues that young people should begin to think about solving if Africa’s regional agenda and the global goals will be realised.
 Tsekoura, M. (2016). Debates on youth participation: from citizens in preparation to active social agents. Revista Katálysis, 19(1), pp.118-125.
 Ismail, Wale, Olonisakin Funmi, Picciotto Bob and Wybrow Dave (2009), Youth Vulnerability and Exclusion (YOVEX) in West Africa: Synthesis Report’, Conflict Security and Development Group Paper, 21.
 Harris, A.; Wyn, J.; Younes, S. (2010). Beyond apathetic or activist youth ‘Ordinary’ young people and contemporary forms of participation, Young, v. 18, n. 1, p. 9-32
 Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and Reeta Roy (2013). Taking Lessons from Africa’s Youth, Stanford Social Innovation Review, June 13. Available at: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/taking_lessons_from_africas_youth
 Harry, N.U. (2013) African Youth, Innovation and the Changing Society, huffpost, November 09. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/njideka-u-harry/african-youth-innovation-_b_3904408.html
 Ibid 8
 Ibid 9