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Does the 'youth bulge' increases the likelihood of violent conflict in Mali?

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Since independence, Mali has faced bursts of conflicts and violence. Mali is among the poorest in the world, rated 178th of 187 countries on the UNDP human development index of 2011. Mali also has one of the youngest populations in the world, with the average age being only 16 years. In Mali there is no formal definition of youth however according to a 2003 Youth – Employment Programme it outlines youth to be between the ages of 15-40. This is mainly due to Mali rejecting notions of age-based definitions of youth which are commonly associated with Western societies. Malian culture views youth as a transitionary period, with cultural aspects feeding into what defines adulthood more so than age alone.

Mali has been going through a civil war since 2012, which has been concentrated in the North. This leads into the question, is the lack of peace and stability due to the number of youths in Mali? At the forefront of this violence is the Tuareg ethnic group which make up around 2% of the population.

The Youth Bulge theory suggests that if youth make up more up more than 20% of the population is it likely to increase both opportunities and motives for political violence. The theory which was introduced by Gunnar Heinsohn has been extremely popular as it utilises quantitative methods to predict the most likely outcomes.

This essay will analyse the validity of the youth bugle theory in reference to Mali, considering its strengths, limitations and offering complementary theories. As Mali has experienced multiple conflicts, the focus will be on the conflict from 2012 onwards.

The context of Mali is important to note when exploring the validity of the youth bulge claim. Mali has had instances of violence and sustained conflict for many decades. The majority of the violence has been concentrated in the North as they have desired to secede since 1963. This same issue re-emerges in recent times and reached its peak in 2012. In the past the rebel groups had been fighting in isolation but then chose to merge into one organised group called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). This collaborative effort alongside arms coming from Libyan civil war made their bid to control the North successful in 2012.

The North declared independence in January 2012. A month later, there the Malian government was overthrown. This coup received popular support as the people felt the president was not handling the situation in the North effectively. Meanwhile, Mali has struggled with food insecurity, especially in the North where the climate is more precarious due to the Saharan conditions. With the country dealing with multiple challenges at the same time, how much of the instability can be attributed to the youth bulge?

The youth bulge theory is determined with an age-based definition of youth. However, there is no one universal agreed upon age bracket for youth. In the case of Mali, it is from 15-40 but more so based on achieving certain cultural millstones such as, marriage, children, owing of property and a reliable income. Transitioning into adulthood is about morality and maturity; if you have things to live for such as those listed above you are deemed less likely to associate with rebellious behaviour, according to their cultural assumptions. Though these cultural markers exist, it’s been increasingly apparent that economic factors take precedent, as lack of financial impendence is what prevents many from achieving adulthood status. Some research has found that Malian youth proclaim that if the authorities maintained peace and protected their welfare and safety, banditry would be less tempting.

Literature on the Tuareg militias does not suggest specific ages of people but define members as culturally youth by their mere association. One may assume they are within the youth bracket due to the physically demanding nature of the militia’s activities and the militia’s desire to recruit “young” people. This makes is slightly challenging in testing the validity of the theory as the age-based dimensions are central to its claims. Nevertheless, some aspects of the claim, such as the proposition that the cohort size of the available youth may influence the propensity for political violence can still be interrogated generally.

The youth bulge theory has some validity in its claims when referencing the availability of youths to participate in conflict. Mali is a very young country, one of the youngest in the world. It has millions of youths at is disposable, especially as their definition of youth extends to 40. Many youths are now unable to become fully independent and partake in the privileges and responsibilities of adult life. With a lack of access to economic opportunities and family building, these youths are more likely to join militias and rebel groups. As the goals of the militias are long term, there is a need for constant recruitment and young people are seen as expendable because of their sheer volume. Though this doesn’t directly fuel violence, it increases the likelihood some youths will seek social and economic advancement by alternative means.

Furthermore, Urdal states that younger generations that are larger than their parents’ generations are likely to run into several societal ‘bottlenecks’, straining social institutions which increases the likelihood of violence, as there is greater competition among the youth to find resources and opportunities especially when they are experiencing environmental challenges. Urdal posits that though economic instability and other grievances do have an effect on the propensity of violence, it is dictated by the amount of youth. A youth bulge may not necessarily lead to violence however considering the theory as a correlation mediated by the impact of several intervening variables increases its validity.

The youth bulge is a popular explanation for much of the violence displayed in developing countries as it can inform policy in global institutions. However, there are many limitations which reduce the validity of the theory. Though some of the theorists point to economic disempowerment and political exclusion as catalysts to violence, it leaves out other possibilities. In Mali the “Tuaregs are not fighting for resources, fertile land, or geographical expansion of territory but for culture, pride, and self-determination.” These things are somewhat tied to the political landscape but have existed before the formation of the independent Malian state.

Fundamentally there are some flaws in the theory such as the omitting of historical events.

Generally, there is historical amnesia in analysing what contributes to the violence.

In Mali the conditions that lead to violence is rooted in colonial and post-colonial governments pressuring the nomads to sedentarise, leading to the reactive nature of resorting to violence due to the lack of substantial political representation. Despite the environmental and economic factors exacerbating the conditions that increase the likelihood of violence, the root cause is the very formation and enforcement of the borders.

The Tuareg tribe is a small one yet have continually fought for their independence alongside those in Niger, Algeria and Libya. Many of the youths feel as though they are protecting their communities or even like community watchmen from existing violence in Mali, as their conflicts predates their existence. It is not about sheer numbers alone but about sentiments that have been passed down.

The theory is also exclusionary of other identities. The focus tends to be on the male youths who are able-bodied and usually of a lower class who are the perpetrators of violence. People not born into wealth find it extremely difficult to access opportunity and thus have limited options. Power tends to be concentrated within a small elite which creates a pool of disaffected young people who are vulnerable to radicalisation or recruitment into a criminal enterprise. This is also expressed in the literature around the Malian civil war, where the focus is on the males who are recruited into these militias or the males who avoid participating in violence. When women are brought up, they are usually discussed in terms of cultural markers, as being a wife or as victims of the ongoing violence. There is little exploration of the vast amounts of youth who actively reject or oppose participating in violence. The gender element is extremely overlooked, in both the youth bulge literature and the Malian war pieces. Unless the pieces are from a gendered analysis youth as a status, is more relevant for boys than for girls, despite girls being just as marginalised and facing pressures they are not considered in the theory. Much of the discourse around youth, categorises boys and girls as sources to be exploited, just in different ways. Mesquida and Wiener have suggested that male age composition alone is a decisive factor in civil conflicts further framing violence around boys/men. The Youth bulge is limited in its scope of considering the factors that contribute to the instances of violence furthermore it theorises youth as one homogenous group that exclude multiple identities.

The grievance-based theory posits that it is discontent with the economic situation which drives youths to violence. The majority of the youth are largely excluded from economic institutions and political decision-making processes. This is especially visible in Mali as the Southern ethnicities and states dominate political trajectories. The aspect of the theory that speaks most to Mali is the structural exclusions that those in the North face. Usually, there tends to be a lack of inclusion for those in more rural and remote places. This is made worse by the fact that Mali is geographically large, and the government lacks the resources to fully control the North.

The structural inequalities mean that there is a disconnect between the central government and the regional experiences. Though they may call for and implement youth projects, chronic unemployment has left many youths idle and suffering. They are unable to move through the phases required to enter into adulthood. Without income, they cannot attract a partner nor support a family. Those already in these militias use this as a recruiting tactic and exploit the youth’s marginalisation. By convincing them that if they join pro-government militias, they will have great opportunities to earn a legitimate living later on, through the official military or government offices. The localised violence is seen as a means to an end rather than an end itself. This doesn’t replace the validity claim but is an addition which can complement the youth bulge theory.

Taking the youths in the North, there are grievances which are based on political issues. The 2012 rebellion was a way of changing the system that they felt had failed them. They were demanding what they deserve after decades of being ignored. These issues predate the current youth rebels and involve whole communities. This doesn’t mean that they still do not have a vested interest in the aims of the MNLA. Malian youth have shared anti-government forces’ complaints that authorities mistreated their communities. The government neglect across Mali’s northern communities was justification for some youths joining the rebels, whereas for others who didn’t they admitted that their communities were the same as or better off than others.

Then the question of agency arises. By assuming that the sheer number of youth’s results in violence removes their agency. Even by recognising those who are born into structural inequalities assumes that they may be more predisposed to participate in violence.

Granting legitimacy for their reasoning for violence doesn’t prove their agency as it’s assumed that unattached boys partake in violence and terrorism because they are easily recruited by radical causes. Even if the causes are to liberate them from their perceived marginalisation. Active participation may be fronted by the youth whereas the strategy and agendas are decided and drafted by those who are older. Youths are more likely to be the tools as they are deemed expendable. Nonetheless, the youths shift from being marginalised in a wider political context to being utilised in their community which gives them a greater sense of authority and purpose. There is always an argument about how much agency youth have, not only as young people but as products of oppressive structures.

The youth bulge is limited in explaining the likelihood of conflict in Mail; what is more valid in this context is the grievance-based theory. The youth in Northern Mali have been born into a system of structural violence. Despite this, the majority of the youth do not choose violence. Many want peace as they view that it is through stability that their grievances will be addressed more effectively. This is the case for many youths in underdeveloped regions with a lack of access to opportunities.

The positionality in a system must be taken into account before creating theories that show a correlation but under more scrutiny fails to show a causation. Many of the youth bulge theorists don’t attribute dense youth populations as the sole reason for conflict nonetheless is not fully valid to explain the increases in the likelihood of conflict in Mali. In the specific case of Mali, the youth are merely responding to the violent structures.

The issues and problems pre-date the youth and that is all that has surrounded them in the North. The Malian conflict would have still occurred if there wasn’t a youth bulge as the ethnic tensions supersede the issues of being young and having economic stability. Grievances, structural violence and marginalisation are more suited in explaining the violence in Mali. The youth bulge offers a very obvious analysis that the more youths you have the more bodies there are to participate in the violence. However, we should also keep in mind that combatants are only a microcosm of the heterogeneous and multifaceted universe that, much for the sake of convenience, we call youth. Some assume that the youth are more likely to participate in violence because they have fewer responsibilities.

However, in Mali the reality is that a lot of young people have many responsibilities. They may need to support their families and themselves as they have gone through food insecurity and previous conflicts. This hasn’t increased the amount of violence in the past few years. Political scientists have sought to use quantitative methods in order to predict the outcomes of situations which is more beneficial for those informing policy. This partly explains the popularity of the youth bulge theory for a long period of time. Especially for global institutions that prefer formulaic processes than individualised thorough assessments. Despite Mali being economically underdeveloped and there being a systemic marginalisation of the youth, especially in the North, the threats have remained consistently confined to the North as the aims are largely cultural. Showing the limited nature of the youth bugle theory, as the number of youths has increased since 2012, yet they choose to peruse peace rather than violence to change systems.

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