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Sierra Leone’s Troubled Youth

Prepared by: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: August 14, 2007

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"We're not happy," exhorts a popular song in Sierra Leone, the Baw Waw Society's "Man Dem No Gladi." Those are "the most popular words of dissent" in Sierra Leone, writes a young blogger there. Other songs label politicians "Tu Fut Arata," or two-legged rats (Reuters). In a country with a young, largely illiterate population, music was one of the most potent campaign tools ahead of the August 12 presidential and parliamentary elections (ElectionGuide). The public responded with a heavy turnout under mostly peaceful conditions (UN News Service) as vote counting continues. The considerable work of elevating a war-ravaged society remains for newly elected leaders.

Sierra Leone, which ranks second to last on the UN Human Development Index, still suffers from the aftermath of an eleven-year civil war that ended in 2002. Child soldiers were the engine that drove the conflict. Now that it's over, their opportunities—and those of the rest of the youth population—are limited. A 2006 paper from the UN Office on West Africa calls youth unemployment in West Africa a "ticking time bomb (PDF) for the region," cautioning that "ever-rising joblessness among youths and the desperation that accompanies it undermines the possibility of progress" in post-conflict countries. A "youth bulge" makes Sierra Leone susceptible to violence and civil conflict, but as this Backgrounder explains, policies to educate youth and create jobs could also drive strong economic gains, or a "demographic dividend." Most presidential candidates promised a youth employment campaign, writes Sierra Leonean journalist Alpha B. Koroma.

Yet such pledges appear unlikely to make the leap from rhetoric to action. The corruption and poor governance that provoked civil war in the early 1990s remain, and many experts say prospects for substantive reform look slim. "There is little danger of new brooms sweeping through Freetown's shabby corridors of power," argues the Economist. Others say despite its faults, the current government—led by the Sierra Leone People's Party—has produced small positive changes. Lansana Gberie, a Sierra Leonean academic, writes that the SLPP government has managed to triple school enrollment, construct hundreds of miles of road, and refurbish hospitals and police stations.

International donors have spearheaded some reform efforts in Sierra Leone. British intervention helped end the civil war, and the British also retrained the army and police (BBC). A group of international donors worked to expand the legal diamond industry. Yet as Brian Thomson notes in a report for Chatham House, a UK-based think tank, little progress has been made on fighting corruption, reforming the courts, and strengthening civil society. Public-service corruption "remains the elephant in the room," contends the International Crisis Group. Both reports agree that powerful local chiefs and their attachments to central government officials have stymied efforts to build stronger state structures.

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