YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Catholic Bishops in Kenya are concerned about the high rate of unemployment in the country, saying it poses a serious security threat to the nation.

In a statement issued April 13 at the end of their plenary assembly, the bishops said that “out of desperation many young people end up joining gangs, militias and terror groups while others are caught up in drugs, substance abuse and alcoholism, as they waste their lives.”

Kenya has experienced years of economic growth, and in 2016 the country saw a growth rate of 5.8 percent – well above regional and global averages – but that success has not improved job prospects.

The jobs created were low-paying and informal jobs and growing at a pace economists said was too slow to offset the high rate of unemployment in the country – a situation the bishops now describe as “a time bomb that can explode at any time.”

According to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate stood at 11 percent in 2016. That figure was double for those aged 15-24. This is coupled with a poverty rate that UNICEF estimates is 42 percent.

“There are many people who feel marginalized and isolated from the mainstream economic gains in the country,” the bishops said.

They said the gap between the rich and the poor must be bridged, otherwise “we shall always have tensions and unending conflicts.”

“We have to tackle poverty which in most cases is the by-product of corruption and looting of the resources we have in this country. We are therefore appealing to both the national and county governments to work for a strong economic base that will provide livelihoods to the poor people and generate revenue for sustainable development,” the bishops said.

They said job creation should top the government’s agenda, and for that to happen, the bishops argued “more resources should be allocated to farmers to work the land and produce food. It is very sad to see farmers frustrated because of the low prices for their produce.”

They also complained that cartels are allowed to import produce from outside Kenya, instead of buying from local farmers, “thus killing the efforts of our own people.”

The bishops called on the government to “protect the Kenyan farmers.”

A new political era for Kenya?

The bishops also welcomed the rapprochement between Kenya’s two main political rivals: President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga.

The latest confrontation between the two leaders came during and after the contentious 2017 presidential election in which Uhuru Kenyatta was declared winner, although Raila declared himself as “the people’s president,” and even held a symbolic “inauguration” ceremony in January which the government said was illegal.

The electoral dispute polarized the country and further exposed the deep tribal and ethnic rifts that have long characterized its politics.

At least 90 people were killed in the ensuing political violence, although that figure pales in comparison to what happened in 2007 when the two men were engaged in yet another contentious election.

At least 1,300 people died and tens of thousands were displaced as the dispute of the election results snowballed into weeks of ethnic score settling after the poll.

In a major about face on March 9, the two men came to an agreement in what they said was the greater interest of the country.

“Throughout our independence history, we have had doubts on how we have conducted our affairs in the face of a growing divide along ethnic, religious and political lines. Regrettably, we have responded to our challenges by mostly running away from them,” Odinga said following that meeting.

“We have moved from year to year, election to election, never pausing to deal with the challenges that our diversity was always going to pose to our efforts to create a prosperous and united nation. Consequently, the ties that bind us are today under the severest stress. Our diversity appears destined to be a curse to ourselves today and to our children tomorrow,” he said.

Kenyatta added that Kenya was larger than both Odinga and him, and it was absolutely necessary to dissolve the political tensions for the interest of the country.

The bishops welcomed this development, coming in the wake of what they described as “an uncertain and tough electioneering period that almost divided the nation, with a shattered economy and a section of the population left wounded during political violence.”

They said the Uhuru-Raila meeting was, and will continue to be good for the country, but insisted that substance must be put into the handshake.

“We see this as a step forward in the right direction and we call upon them to speed up the process of real, meaningful and lasting reconciliation,” they said.

The bishops underscored the need for the two leaders to work together to build a more united and peaceful country, “where every person’s dignity is respected and where all have equal opportunities irrespective of where they come from. It is our hope and that of all Kenyans that this meeting will herald a new era of reconciliation, dialogue, peace, stability and prosperity.”

Moving forward, the bishops called for the establishment of “an all-inclusive round-table Conference that will iron out all the differences that have been separating Kenyans.”

They also called for a review of Kenya’s constitution “in light of the contentious issues that emerged during the recent elections, and other shortcomings that have been noted.”

“Similarly, such a conference should look at how the presidency can be structured so that it is above political parties, so that it is not a position of power struggle, that is bitterly contested as it has happened in the 2007 and the 2017 presidential elections,” the bishops said.