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africa week feature ;

Better understanding street gangs is key to supporting urban development in Africa

In 2008, the world’s population crossed a threshold. According to official figures, for the first time in history more than half of all people now lived in urban areas. Predictions of how this rapid urbanisation will continue to unfold put Africa at the centre, as the continent with the fastest rate of urban growth. Where large megacities like Lagos, Nigeria, are expected to triple in population size by 2050, a persistent concern has been how this growth may exacerbate already pronounced inequalities between wealthy and poor urban areas. Some have warned that urban growth is leaving many of Africa’s young population behind and, with limited alternatives, many may look to illicit means to survive.

The African continent has often been framed in unhelpful, simplifying discourses by both the media and scholarship. As Comfort Ero, Director of the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, explained ahead of King’s Africa Week, neither narratives of ‘the hopeless continent’ nor ‘Africa rising’ are sufficient to capture the sheer diversity of contexts and developments taking place across 54 countries.

In many respects, the idea that urban growth is fuelling rising crime in Africa is similarly too simplistic. Not only can urbanisation improve living conditions for many, our research shows that analyses of the push-pull factors behind street gangs and urban crime need to be anchored in their local and historical context. For example, in Cape Town, South Africa, which in recent years has regularly been named one of the world’s most violent cities, legacies of Apartheid are among many challenges which may be far more significant than urban growth. Nevertheless, by comparing cases in Africa, we also find that there are some key common factors driving urban insecurity in marginalised communities across the continent.

Our research builds from our combined experience of working with young marginalised people in Sierra Leone over the years. We have spent time with former rebels who fought in the country’s 1991-2002 civil war, and more recently, have begun to engage with a new generation of youth who have organised around ‘cliques’ – street gangs with names like ‘Crips’ and ‘Bloods.’ These under-researched groups draw on globally shared ideas about gangsterism, taking inspiration from rap music and US artists like Tupac, but at the same time tell us something about the specific local conditions and problems they face.

In the capital Freetown, unlike in other cities around the world, there is no major lucrative market for narcotics. The gangs are still nascent and are less visible and far less developed than in cities like Cape Town. The gangsters we have spent time with struggle to survive on the streets. There are no major turf wars fought around drugs, and most gangsters say that their dream is to escape ‘the game’ by finding gainful employment. Since gang life is precarious, and the vast majority of clique members have spent time in prison or have suffered serious injuries in inter-gang ‘beefs,’ it can seem puzzling why anyone would choose to join a clique. Many do so because they feel excluded from opportunities to earn a living by other means, or because they find in their gang a sense of belonging and self-worth – a chance to be ‘somebody’ – that otherwise seems out of reach.

By conducting over 500 in-depth interviews with gangs, communities, police officers, and those in prison, our research takes one small step in providing an evidence-base to begin thinking about solutions to these challenges. The feeling of exclusion Sierra Leone’s cliques articulate is not unique to the country, nor to Africa, and shows that those exploring how cities around the world can manage challenges in the urban era must look to the structural conditions that leave many youths feeling trapped.

Our findings also underscore that the stigma typically attached to young gang members must be challenged. Far from being lazy and naturally violent, those we have interviewed have survived on the streets through relentless hustling and hard work, turning to illicit activities for survival rather than profit, and are almost always desperate for a way out of their marginality. Moving away from zero-tolerance policing practices and harsh prison sentences towards policies that engage constructively with gangs, has the potential to help them become positive agents of change in their communities. We saw this potential during the past Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, when gang members helped with some of the most hazardous work, such as burials, putting themselves at risk to protect others. During Covid-19, many have again been active in awareness-raising programmes in their neighbourhoods.

The research we have conducted so far is a starting point in a broader project that will see further comparative research exploring cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, South Africa, and beyond. The aim is to provide a better understanding of the challenges surrounding urban insecurity, and to address the ways in which longstanding and new forms of marginality may face youth across the continent. By appreciating the specific local conditions in which street gangs and other groups arise, our study can assist in the development of locally-tailored solutions that avoid uncritically importing policies and programmes from cities in the Global North that may not always be appropriate for other contexts.

Dr Ibrahim Abdullah is an Associate Professor of History and African Studies at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.

Dr Kieran Mitton is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and co-Chair of the Africa Research Group.

Their project
‘Life in Between: Youth Street Gangs and Marginality in Contemporary Sierra Leone’ is funded by the British Academy.


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