Youth, Unemployment and Extrajudicial killings in Kenya

Is there a link between youth, unemployment, rural to urban migration and extrajudicial killings? Perceptions among Kenyan (mostly urban) youth suggests that unemployment heightens chances of security agencies’ suspicion of such young people’s involvement in crime, therefore increasing their likelihood of experiencing harassment or arrest by security agencies. However, not all unemployed youth engage in crime, nor do all unemployed young people experience harassment by security agencies. Young people’s perspectives on these issues vary, but their experiences and perceptions are important to consider.

Latest Government of Kenya reports indicate that nine out of ten unemployed people are below the age of 35, with the largest unemployed group being between the age of 20-24¹. The African Development Bank reports that 10-12 million youth in Africa enter the workforce each year, compared to approximately 3 million jobs created annually. This leaves a large number of youth unemployed. Rural-urban migration among the youth has continuously been high, with cities and towns remaining unprepared for the large influx of migrants. Compounding this urban migration problem, investment in agriculture remains low, despite the government’s acknowledgement of its role in the country’s development. The government is also trying to portray an image of the manufacturing sector slowly coming back to life, despite recent media reports of downsizing or total closure of some factories. Whilst this is happening, more young people are entering the constricted job market and migrating into urban areas in search of these elusive jobs.

On 1st July 2019, Kenyans woke up to trending news on social media of hundreds about unemployed youth flocking an upmarket hotel that had an opening for only five positions. This is not the first time that large numbers of unemployed people, mostly youth, have shown up in masses seeking few advertised employment opportunities. In addition, more youth have been conned on the pretext that they will be employed once they pay “job application fees” or bribes. For most young people born and bred in the rural villages of Kenya, completing Kenya’s 8-4-4 education system (Kenyans will often joke that 8 minus 4 minus 4 equals zero, so the 8-4-4 education system basically leaves you with nothing to show of it) sets them ready for formal employment in one of the urban centres in the country, mostly Nairobi, where they are only to encounter declining employment rates.

While many young people migrate to Nairobi in search of employment, cases of extrajudicial killings are reported in low-income neighbourhoods and slums of the city that are home to thousands of young people establishing their lives after years of schooling, and where others have called home for most of their lives. Media reports indicate that these killings mostly target youth aged between 15 and 24. There is a section rumoured to be of the police going by the name Hessy whose existence is continually denied by security agencies; it’s active on social media, using Facebook groups like Nairobi Crime Free (Crime Free Society) among others to post photos of young people (mostly men) suspected to be involved in crimes and warning them to relocate back to their rural homes or face death. In most cases, the threats are followed by images of bodies of people who had previously been threatened, usually days, weeks or a few months later. Recently, human rights activists have featured on some of Hessy’s Facebook posts.

Recently, while on field research in North-Eastern Kenya, I met a young man who claimed to have relocated back from Eastleigh, Nairobi after receiving threats from a dreaded police officer who said he would face unspecified consequences if he did not move back to his rural home. He believed his only crime to have been assisting a human rights organization in documenting extrajudicial killings by security agencies in Eastleigh. Speaking to young people during previous research activities in Eastleigh and Majengo areas of Nairobi, they spoke about friends they believe had been killed by security agents on suspicion of being criminals. The one question they consistently pose is, “If he (the police officer) was able to apprehend the young men he claimed were criminals, why would he not take them through the justice system? Why was the police officer taking the position of the detainer, prosecutor and judge? Since when did being an unemployed youth in Nairobi become a crime?”. The last question struck! Indeed, since when did being an unemployed youth become a crime in Nairobi? Among youth in low income neighborhoods and slums of Nairobi, their perceptions remain that they are one action away from being profiled by Hessy, and their unemployment is first to be blamed upon.

If this supposed link between unemployment and targeted police harassment exists, then what can be done to break the cycle? How can we incentivize young people to stay in their rural homes rather than migrating to urban centres where jobs just do not exist? How can we better engage young people and the police to break down misperceptions of idle youth? How can we improve the judicial system in Kenya to act as a legitimate punitive system to curb crime? Many more questions than answers, but what these questions do reveal is the importance of integrated, collaborative efforts in addressing such complex issues.