Who should claim responsibility for local crime prevention and security? Local and national governments struggle with growing problem

June 10, 2016

Criminal gangs in West and Central Africa are on the rise, and their members are getting younger — some as young as 10. Climbing youth unemployment, unequal distribution of resources, and lack of access to justice were identified at a conference in Dakar, Senegal, as some of the main drivers of violence and crime in many of the region’s urban centres.

Mayors from a number of West and Central African nations, IDRC-supported researchers, practitioners, and other experts gathered at the two-day knowledge exchange entitled Local Strategies to Combat Violence and Crime for Inclusive Urban Governance in West and Central Africa. On April 28-29, 2016, participants met to discuss the causes of urban violence and social exclusion, and to debate possible collaborative solutions to making safer cities.

Jointly hosted by IDRC, the city of Dakar, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), and Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale (IPAR), the event showcased research findings from projects in Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ghana — part of the DFID-IDRC funded Safe and Inclusive Cities Initiative.

What is the research telling us?

Young gang members say they could “do the unbelievable” when they are high on widely-available drugs, says Francis Akindes, a professor from the Université de Alassane Ouattara in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Many of these gangs, such as the Microbes in Abidjan or the Kuluna in Kinshasa, are made up of young, marginalized men and women who see violence as a skill to be mastered, and who consider themselves “socially dead”.

The high birth rate in the Democratic Republic of Congo — on average 10 children per woman — is placing pressure on communities where resources are already being stretched to the limit. Young children are being accused of witchcraft and becoming socially marginalized.

In Ghana, the poor are paying a high price; they are at greatest risk of being victims of crime, yet they lack the resources to seek justice. As a result, people are resorting to community policing and informal systems to fight crime.

In the keynote speech given by Jean Pierre Elong Mbassi, Secretary General of Cities and Local Governments of Africa (CGLUA), he stresses that Africa’s population will climb to 2.4 billion by 2050 — the highest concentration of people in the world.

Mayor of Dakar Khalifah Sall says that human insecurity and exclusion are at the heart of the problems being experienced today. As urbanization increases, the number of marginalized youth will grow.

Is security a national or local responsibility?

The lack of police resources has prompted a struggle between local and national governments, with neither wanting to claim ownership of security. Decentralization, coupled with inadequate financial, human, and infrastructural resources at the municipal level emerged as a key challenge for actors trying to provide security at the local level. With a continent experiencing a population boom and rapid rates of urbanization, resources at the local level can’t keep up. “Decentralization is a slogan, but do African municipalities have the capacities and the means to meet the pressures of urbanization and violence?” Sall asks.

Are education and jobs the answer?

The leading cause of youth joining the ranks of gangs is exclusion — social, political, and economic. Exclusionary state policies, which are reinforced with each election of the same political cadres, have pushed young men and women to the fringes, and towards finding a sense of belonging and agency with violent gangs. IDRC-supported research from West and Central Africa suggests some key recommendations that can target the problem at its core.

Addressing the high levels of unemployment for young men and women and raising the mandatory schooling age will help get kids off the street and back in schools. Improvements to public housing in slums and expanding family planning programs will also help to create stable families and homes that are welcoming to children.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the severity of the issue has caught international attention. The French National Assembly are conducting a fact-finding mission to learn more from the IDRC-supported research, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in Côte d’Ivoire are using the findings to inform a project focused on youth contributions to social cohesion in the country. Including youth in political, economic, and social life to create a sense of community will be key to mitigate the allure of gangs for youth.

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