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As the Ivorian government works on security, reconciliation and economic recovery in the country, the issue of the youth is crucial. Myriam Wedraogo looks at the roles youths played in the post-election crisis and explores windows of opportunity for their empowerment.

Whether a ‘patriot’ or a ‘rebel’, a member of the pro-Gbagbo or pro-Ouattara militia, the youths who were affected in the Ivorian conflict both as perpetrators and as victims had a similar background: all were confronted with the socio-economic challenges of a country held back by a decade of civil war. Political Scientist Michel Galy rightly pointed out that the ‘dead goats’, that is, students with neither degrees nor a future, had nothing to lose and could be easily mobilised.[1]

Past and recent studies have attempted to explain why young people engage in violent acts. The authors of the ‘Study on youth vulnerability and exclusion in West Africa’ (YOVEX) argue that participation in violence can be ‘perceived as a form of status symbol or acknowledged as a form of achievement, or reflecting a continuing historical pattern as a service to the community (that is, defending the community)’.[2]

Although the Ivorian post-election divide took the illusive mantra of an anti-neocolonialism/self-determination movement versus foreign interference, the ideological battle – if there was any at all – was the tip of the well-rooted iceberg of structural challenges exacerbated by personal and collective motives. Among such challenges is the youth bulge. From security sector reform to education and national cohesion, critical reconstruction measures will need to be on top of the agenda of Ivorian authorities.


The failure to conduct disarmament before the 2010 disputed presidential election has strengthened the presence of two rival armies that were ready to fight, leading to hostilities when former President Laurent Gbagbo rejected election results backed by the international community. The International Crisis Group warned that ‘large numbers of weapons must be surrendered – an arsenal that threatens not only Ivory Coast but also Liberia, Ghana and all members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).’[3]

In a recent briefing on security sector reform, Ivorian Minister Delegate for Defence Paul Koffi Koffi announced that the government would demobilise 10,000 fighters by the end of 2011 as part of measures aimed at re-establishing security. The next thing would be to wonder how comprehensive, inclusive and thorough such a process would be. Indeed, a danger would be to have security sector reform left to winners alone.

Designing and implementing a successful disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme may require learning from flaws of the Sierra Leonean and the Liberian experiences, while taking into account the specific Ivorian social, economic and political environment. Here is summary of the hiccups in previous DDRs as analysed by Human Rights Watch:[4]

- The majority of former fighters interviewed who had participated in the 2000–03 United Nations-sponsored Sierra Leonean disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme (DDR) received only partial benefits, were kept out of the skills training component of the programme or failed to receive any benefits at all. They also identified corruption in this process and an inadequate grievance procedure within the DRR program as serious problems. Many perceived the programme's failure to engage them as having contributed to their decision to take up arms in subsequent conflicts. Similar problems were described by those within the 2003–05 UN-sponsored Liberian disarmament programme, although to a much lesser degree.
- The risk of resurgence of conflict is indeed still high in an Ivorian society still highly polarised, and the dynamics of a migrant population of young fighters from neighbouring countries making their ways through porous borders is a threat that needs attention. The discovery earlier in June of a huge cache of arms and ammunition in the Liberian county of Grand Gedeh, near the border with Côte d’Ivoire is a symptomatic manifestation of a regional-scale threat.[5]


On 20 April 2011, the new Ivorian authorities decided to close until further notice two public higher-learning institutions in the economic capital Abidjan: the universities of Cocody and Abobo Adjamé. They argued that the institutions were no longer conducive to the training and grooming of the elite. Evoking security reasons, the Ouattara government stated that the two institutions were ‘arms caches’ and served as a ‘refuge’ for militias and mercenaries of former President Laurent Gbagbo. [6]

It could be argued that Paul Collier’s thesis about the low level of education of youth embarking on civil wars would not hold in Côte d’Ivoire. Many of pro-Gbagbo’s Young Patriots and pro-Ouattara’s young supporters are well-educated citizens caught in the middle of a politico-military crisis where they had to choose sides as a matter of survival. In a context marked by tension, a crippled education sector and lack of employment opportunities, the triggers of violence were holding on a thin line.

The national chair of the youth of the PDCI (Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire) party Kouadio Konan Bertin addressing his colleagues described them as ‘young people with plenty degrees reduced to mere entertainers in meetings, placing chairs and tarpaulins’.[7] An example of the lack of alternatives and opportunities for youths is the protracted period of studies for many Ivorians. The Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Cissé Bacongo revealed that about 7,000 students had spent over 16 years on campuses, warning that the number could increase as investigations unfolded.[8]

In view of all the above, it would be critical for the Ivorian educational system to take up the following challenges alongside other priority measures of the reconstruction:

- Secure and rehabilitate infrastructure that was seriously affected by looting at the height of the post-election crisis
- Initiate unification of the nation through equal access to knowledge irrespective of ethnic, religious and political background and the reduction of inequality in gender and among the regions of the country
- Build and strengthen democratic processes at all levels through participatory engagement in the reform of the education sector
- Set up visionary post-education mechanisms for creative employment and self-employment of youths.


Leading the Ivorian nation towards overcoming past hurts in order to reconcile is one of the most sensitive tasks facing the Ouattara administration. However, it may be easier to achieve a deep transformation with youths as an entry point. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon rightly indicated that young people often understand better than older generations that differences can be transcended to ‘reach [our"> shared goals’.[9]

To fully employ youths as agents for reconciliation and unity, we would recommend the creation of spaces of dialogue among the youth in the form of national youth conferences that engage them at the political level. As the country moves towards the organisation of legislative elections by the end of the year, a good test of sound inclusion of youth in the Ivorian political processes could be to make sure they are duly represented across parties in the national assembly.

Most importantly, defusing frustration among the youth can only be achieved if economic opportunities are created for them. Hence the critical need to lay the foundation of responsive governance that would reduce horizontal inequality and bury the seeds of instability. An ally not to be underrated in the materialisation of an economic ‘deal’ for the youth is the private sector which, as a major employer, needs a conducive environment to develop. Money pumped in by partners and debt relief will certainly help Côte d’Ivoire but not sustain its severely damaged economy. A vibrant and youthful workforce will.


* Myriam Wedraogo is an alumnus of the Peace and Security Fellowship, African Leadership Centre.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.


[1] Michel Galy ‘Cabri mort n'a pas peur de couteau’ Notes sur jeunesse et violence dans la crise ivoirienne », Outre-Terre 2/2005 (no 11), p. 223-227.
Accessible at :
[2] Wale Ismail et al., Youth Vulnerability and Exclusion (YOVEX) in West Africa: Synthesis Report, CSDG Papers, Number 21, April 2009, p.61.
[3] Executive Summary and Recommendations of the International Crisis Group Report, ‘A critical period for ensuring stability in Côte d’Ivoire”, 1 August 2011. Accessed at
[4] Human Rights Watch: Youth, poverty and blood: The lethal legacy of West Africa’s regional warriors, vol. 17, no. 5(A), April 2005,
[5] The area in Grand Gedeh County where the arms were found is one of the places where mercenaries and militias employed by Côte d’Ivoire’s deposed ruler Laurent Gbagbo are said to have fled after the latter was toppled on April 2011.
[6] See APA- Abidjan, 20 April 2011,
[7] PDCI forms with the RDR of President Alassane Ouattara the ruling majority, RHDP.
[8] See Le Patriote ‘Université d’Abidjan : Plus de 7000 étudiants ont 16 ans de présence’, 20 July 2011,
[9] Secretary-General's Remarks to General Assembly High-Level Meeting on Youth, New York, 25 July 2011,