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West Africa unemployment: a 'time bomb'

With unemployment in West Africa as high as 80 percent, Senegal's university students say that leaves them with only one option — leaving.
/ Source: Reuters

Dakar's university may provide an education envied around West Africa but many of its students have only one dream — to leave Africa, even if it means hiding in boats, truck containers or the undercarriage of an aircraft.

Almost three-quarters of West Africa's population are under 30 and unemployment rates in some countries are as high as 80 percent.

In the overcrowded corridors of Senegal's top university, students say that leaves them with only one option.

"Here all the students dream of leaving. We don't know what there is over there, in Europe or the United States, but there are no jobs here," said Matar Fall, 22, on his way across the sandy campus to a geography lecture.

‘A ticking time bomb’
The United Nations said on Thursday youth joblessness in the region, which has seen some of modern Africa's most brutal wars, was a threat to the stability of even those countries that have so far escaped all-out conflict.

Events last month in Morocco, where troops deployed to stop hundreds of African youths storming Spanish enclaves, would "pale into insignificance compared to what we could witness in 20 years time," the U.N. Office for West Africa said in a study.

"It's a tragedy that many of the region's young people seem to have, almost as their highest aspiration, the idea of stowing away inside an aircraft's undercarriage or a truck container in order to take themselves away from Africa," said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the U.N. special envoy for the region.

"Current levels of unemployment among young men and women in West Africa are a ticking time bomb for the region and also beyond ... it risks destroying the political and social structures even of countries that are at present stable."

Guns for hire
Current demographic trends in West Africa are among the highest in recorded history anywhere in the world, with an estimated 430 million people expected to live in the region by 2020, an increase of more than 100 million in just 15 years.

Millions already live in overcrowded shantytowns and slums with the numbers of unemployed young men rising year by year, fuelling crime and providing the least stable countries with cheap recruits for militia groups and rebel factions.

"Cross-border recruitment of young people for armed conflict is all too common in the arc of territory extending from Guinea-Bissau to Ivory Coast," the study said.

Ould-Abdallah said Ivory Coast, split into a government south and rebel north since 2002, was a major concern with former combatants from neighboring Liberia, many of whom fought as child soldiers, being recruited to fight again there.

Faced with no job prospects and a desire to rise in the estimation of their peers, some young men were willing to take up arms in exchange for small amounts of money, clothes and the promise of "wives."

Possible instability
Diplomats in Liberia and Sierra Leone, both of which are recovering from years of civil war fought by young bands of drugged-up fighters, have warned that youth unemployment is the greatest threat to fragile efforts to consolidate peace.

But it was not just countries at war or recovering from conflicts that were at threat, the United Nations said.

There was also the prospect of social instability and a huge outflow of skilled workers from countries considered relatively successful, such as Senegal.

An estimated 3 million Senegalese nationals currently work abroad, most of them as illegal immigrants, the government says.

Dakar's university, where the annual fee is $8.99, is so overcrowded that eager students are forced to take notes on stairwells and corridors outside packed lecture halls.

But few see their skills remaining in Africa for long.

"It's very disappointing after years of studying, after the hopes you have and your family has, not to find a job," said Soumah Karim, 20, a first-year law student from Guinea.