Youth in the Sahel facing COVID-19: between vulnerability and creativity Spécial

By: Brayden Mahoney, Peace Education Intern at the Timbuktu Institute

Based on an Analysis Note n°3 which is part of the Timbuktu Institute's special series of publications with the support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation on civil society in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Sahel.



Africa is receiving less media coverage nowadays, but the pandemic continues to devastate many populations on the continent. Africa has not finished suffering the consequences of the pandemic due to its level of economic development but also and especially the age of its population; the continent concentrates the youngest population in the world: 75% of West African are less than 25 years old. This demographic dynamic would normally be seen as an economic stimulant, but the region has difficulty securing education and employment, creating socioeconomic vulnerabilities that only increase due to this crisis. This situation worries leaders, especially in this period of COVID-19 where the unemployment rate has increased significantly.


Despite the virus relatively sparing young people in terms of deaths and complications, the youth of the region were greatly affected by the restrictive measures put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus, especially in the education, professional, and social sectors. This sparked violent rebellion against restrictive measures, like an imposed curfew, which dampened the regions' innovation ability in regard to the economic recession the world is undergoing. This situation brings light to the legitimate question of the outcome of the Sahelian populations, and young Sahelians in particular.


This article examines the preliminary analysis of the consequences of COVID-19 on the Sahelian youth whom are often associated with the economic and developmental vulnerability of the region. Because of the limited to no media coverage, this article will also highlight the efforts and responses of young people in the region which provide a better predicting outlook for the Sahel.


I – The hybrid nature of the consequences of COVID-19 on the situation of young people

From the very beginning and first indications of a pandemic, the Sahelian States adopted drastic measures of shutdowns by closing public spaces, including schools and universities which are possible hotspots for the virus to spread. These closures have temporarily or even definitively put millions of young people out of the school and university systems around the world. UNESCO estimates that since March 31, 2020, 89% of people are out of school due to school closures, a percentage representing 1.54 billion young people and children enrolled in university and school. Despite the infrastructural challenges the African continent faces, each country has had to create their own strategies for e-learning.

Across the region, Ministers of Education created e-learning classes on a variety of platforms, including via WhatsApp in Niger and in Senegal, the Minister of Education created a new television channel called “Canal education” to reduce the difficulties in access to technology. Despite facing ongoing conflict within the education sector since 2012, the Minister of Education in Mali creative-learning stations on the television, radio, and social media networks. The disparities among these populations and these countries in access to e-learning materials and modes of instruction accentuates the digital divide that consumes the continent. This inequality directly correlates to a reduction in the chances of success among children who are not able to successfully transition to online learning. The pandemic has illustrated the dire need to invest in technology, particularly in e-learning, and to increase access to these resources for rural populations, as well as creating strategies to address future crises like this in the context of the African reality.

According to the International Labour Organization, one in six young people have completely stopped working around the world due to the pandemic, specifically among the ages of 18 to 24 years old. The results of this study can be seen in Niger where the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic on young people show that 89% of girls and boys report a loss in weekly income. This impacts not only the quality of life in regard to access to food and other basic necessities, but it also affects relational tensions at home. In Senegal, divorce rates have increased and 87% of young people in Niger say that they have experienced at least one form of relational tension either with members of their families or among friends during this difficult time.

            While the socioeconomic statuses of young people are deteriorating, they are also upset by the stigma being shared about them, classifying them as “vectors of disease transmission”. The argument is that irresponsible young people go out, contract the virus, and then return home to in turn infect the elderly. The Senegalese Minister of the Interior has publicly made this claim which people in turn use to uphold this stigma against young people. 


II – From contesting measures restricting freedoms to the transition to violence

            The governments of the Sahel are undermining the freedom of movement of people and goods by implementing regulations, such as curfews that differ from country to country, across sub-Saharan Africa. Young people were upset by these restrictions and protested them peacefully until they violently took to the streets. There have also been conspiracy theories spreading around the validity of the mortality of the virus which resulted in the arrest of a Mauritanian woman who spread the false statement via WhatsApp. The Senegalese government has also been subject of criticism when President Sall made the statement that Senegal was unable to organize repatriation flights, to which Senegalese youth responded with criticism on social media. In Mali, an activist that helps displaced people and children through their organization called Association des Jeunes pour la Citoyenneté Active et la Démocratie (AJCAD), has stated that she regrets the impact of restrictive measures on small traders and the lack of support while urging the authorities to lift the curfew which she says has not prevented the spread of the virus. But it should be noted that the demonstrations around the M5-RFP protest movement have deployed in the streets not because of the coronavirus, but to demand the resignation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, which ultimately ended in a military coup.

            The protesting youth took to violence to protest the state authority with youth in Niger being among the first to defy the curfew and the ban on collective prayer. Many regions faced destruction from these violent protests which fueled other protesters that opposed the police ultimately resulting in mass arrests, including the arrest of 58 minors in the country’s capitol. The violent energy carried over into Senegal shortly after also causing destruction. In order to curb the violence, the Senegalese government has decided to relax the safety measures.

            Despite the violence, the people of the Sahel countries have also distinguished themselves, sometimes through creativity, in building resilience and actions of solidarity necessary in times of crisis.


III Resilience and creativity of young people in the face of COVID-19

Resilient actors through their actions


            Many NGOs, such as Solidarité Laïque, Coordination Sud and Plan International, have all partnered with young people outside of urban centers to raise awareness of the importance of precautionary measures. The European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa funded a project called “La voix des jeunes du Sahel”/“The voice of young people in the Sahel” and created twenty different programs available in local languages in the G5 to aid in the effort of raising public awareness of coronavirus related issues. Young people all over the Sahel have taken this initiative and proliferated their awareness raising efforts. For example, a pharmacology student at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar created hand sanitizer and went door to door explaining precautionary health measures to their community. Young people in Mali have been innovative in technology, specifically at the Doni Lab Laboratory where they created an artificial respirator and other disinfectant products. In Niger unemployed medical school graduates volunteered to work on the front lines with minimal personal protective equipment (PPE) and in Chad the Ardeb Djoumal Youth Mutual Aid Association distributed PPE and other hygiene kits, all in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

            As the rest of the world continues to ease restrictions, Africa has yet to hit its peak amounts of infections so in order to keep the urgency and awareness high in addition to combating false information, the region has turned to social media for help, as young people are the main users. Facebook is helping reach young people by creating an Information Center that is at the top of the user’s news feed which began in South Africa but has plans to expand to many sub-Saharan countries like Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mali, Mauritania, Chad. According to the head of the Mauritanian government, the new strategy to fight against coronavirus is based on the involvement of young people in raising awareness of the dangers of the virus and the means to prevent it, while calling on citizens to respect preventive measures. Aside from intervention of higher authorities in these efforts, young people have taken the responsibility to create coalitions dedicated to helping people living in difficult conditions, specifically child beggars and prisoners in Dakar. All of these efforts further emphasize the resilience of young people in sub-Saharan Africa.


The coronavirus, a booster of youthful talent and creativity?

            While the pandemic certainly created frustration in regard to confinement and restrictions, it has also fueled ingenuity among the youth in this region of Africa. Students from the Ecole Supérieure Polytechnique of Dakar have created a robot called “Doctor Car” which can travel by itself via wireless control to provide aid and assistance to quarantined patients. Another Senegalese company, Fari Fima, shifted their focus from cosmetic products to creating large scale amounts of hand sanitizer and disinfectant products, which has been so successful they are planning to open new operations in Côte d’Ivoire and Rwanda. And in Niger, with the support of UNICEF, a program called Muryar Matassa, meaning "Voices of the young" in the Hausa language, is working to share useful information, concerns, and reporting of the virus. All of these efforts by young people strengthen the notion that African youth have the potential to reinvent and create a modern, sustainable future for the continent. They are the next generation of leaders and must be praised for their innovation, in addition for their new presence and command among local and national government. Their new presence has been commended by officials that state, “We remain confident in the success of this mission, because these young people have all the criteria to lead government policy successfully.” It is also worth noting that youth efforts outside of university academia have been just as successful with students from vocational and technical schools taking initiatives to create reusable masks, handwashing pumps, visors, among other things with or without the use of new technologies.


Art, a therapy to the rescue of science?

            One silver lining to the pandemic is that it has brought people together through the lens of culture and has given light to artists of the region that are using their talents to continue in the fight to raise awareness and convey important messages to the public through social media. For example, a Nigerian student named Akeem Eking is a rapper and uses his music to get involved in this fight against the virus and sums up his efforts by saying, “basically rap is not to make people dance, but to raise awareness. Today, in any case, it is the best way to communicate with young people…[and] as an artist, it is my duty to touch my fans because in this crisis, everyone must be responsible.”



            The coronavirus has exposed many vulnerabilities in important areas of African infrastructure. The virtualization of the education system was not fully effective, the need to invest in information and communication technologies, and the need to invest in health systems have now all been highlighted, especially among the poorest populations of the region. African leaders do not let these limits hold them back as they understand the importance to invest in these key areas of infrastructure. The African youth, despite creating violence and destruction in protest, have shown their resilience and dedication to the prosperity of the continent and are now being recognized as the bright future full of security and innovation that lays ahead for the African continent.