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“A Cobweb: Our Youths, Our Dilemma, Our Future”

Raymond Dele Awoonor-Gordon

4 July 2010

Those of us who peeped into the future with a permanent frown on our foreheads, cautious, reticent, concerned and hoping for a new inspiration at the advent of the Ernest Koroma administration, have since been labelled as opposition sympathisers and even some unprintable names, for not giving a guttural roar filled to the brim with emotion and for going on about what needs to be done or has been handled badly.

But if we appreciate the first thing about honesty, then we all know that some leaders turn up in government and are greater than the sum of their parts; others, realise that their ilk are part of the problem and therefore strive to be part of the solution.

Having been taken for a ride for too long by past administrations, some of us realise that the only way forward for the country and its future is to refuse to be cheerleaders for politicians who no sooner are they in power than they forget the promises made to turn our lives around when they applied for the job. Time will tell if they deserve it and serious ones do know that history is the ultimate judge.

On the 25th of February 2008, in a piece: ‘Ernest Bai Koroma: Dare to be Different part 3’, I wrote the following extract:

“The Dilemma of Youths: One of the most saddening, shameful but also painful thing in Sierra Leone today, is to see the army of youths parading the streets of our major cities, especially Freetown. Some of them have lost hope and confidence in themselves as a result of the frustration, discrimination and abyss that envelope them, courtesy of our leaders.

Generations of forgotten children who have been incubated in sub-human conditions in densely populated communities and slums have now come of age. Years of dehumanising existence have shaped minds and conditioned them.…

We all know that the youths are the live wire of any society. The virile age bracket of 18-55 especially, is the centre on which the present and future of this nation is anchored. If a man with a vision rules Sierra Leone, there will be full and gainful employment for a large percentage of at least this group of citizens. They are the desired manpower.

A good leader of any nation should be a leader that knows how to exploit and tap the strength of its youths to enrich the nation and at the same time, make its youths fulfilled. Unless Koroma takes how to utilise the human resources at his disposal as a first priority, the country will lack a tomorrow. But it is for the tomorrow of the youths, that those who shed blood and limbs gave their yesterday….

Going by the widening gap between the poor and the rich in Sierra Leone and the growing awareness by the large army of impoverished and disadvantaged young men and women, our beloved country could witness a revolution against the rich and super rich.

Sounds and flashes of this are being heard and seen from the distance, like the signs of a heavy downpour. It includes the widespread social unrest characterised by the rising crime wave. It is the party youths refusing to be short-changed, used and dumped by politicians. It is the mistrust and distrust of anything remotely connected with power. It is our youths crying out for justice and change through their music, actions, words and deeds…” 

That was about four months into the life of this government. That is almost three years since power changed hands; thanks to the same generation of youths who have carried the burden of the nation’s future.

Tragically, today, still strewn across the landscape of Sierra Leone, are the ashes of the nation’s innocence – the same youths. They are lost in a fetid pool of dismay, disillusion and myth. Their future lost in the morass of politics and graft. It is becoming harder for them to see the wood from the trees.

If we look at the history of most of the nations like ours where there have been uprisings, we’ll discover that most of the circumstances that led to the frustration, anger as well as the resultant delinquent dissent, can often be traced to the failure of leaders to confront the desperation of these generation and to implement policies in the areas of education and the delivery of services that will take care of their inherent frustration..

In our country today, out of a youth population of about three million or 75% of the total population, more than 80% are unemployed, with another 10-15% under-employed.

Yet, as we hawk the nation’s economic and social heritage around the global bazaars like a sullen slave, our youths see the exaggerated emotional allegiance to their plight while greedy investors are shielded and shown the highway to heaven.

The failure of the system is seen in the frightening drug-induced hell of our young men and women who have been driven to near delinquent crime-prone existence. They spiral out of control because the future repeatedly promised them much but is yet to deliver.

At the state opening of parliament last October (2009) President Koroma for the umpteenth time since his election stated “In the next twelve months, we will make the National Youth Commission operational; ensuring that it becomes the hub for designing, implementing and co-ordinating programmes that promote skills acquisition, employment and political inclusion of youths…..”

I am sorry but it is virtually impossible for me to reconcile this expression with the reality.

With able-bodied men and women eking out a living from scavenging dumps of refuse, selling sweets on the streets or condescendingly, junks at ‘Belgium’ and riding Okada or doing other menial and unsustainable jobs, what we have today, virtually three years into his tenure, is a far-cry from the President’s vision.

The government might refuse to appreciate the devastating all-round consequences of the dilemma of our youths and it might continue to use statistics and platitudes in an attempt to get us to disbelieve the evidence of our own eyes; but stark analysis shatters any notion being bandied about.

The facade of diligent planning that is being presented also suggests that the government is planning to fail diligently in coming up with genuine reforms for the transformation of current social deficiencies and the exploitation of our youths.

Yes, it didn’t create the problem. Yes, it’s not this government’s fault. Yes, most of the young men and women just want an easy life. Yes, the youths are not ingenious. Yes, there are many excuses for the sorry state of affairs. Yes. Yes. Yes, yes …to a lot of things.

But if people are going to be beaming with smiles and ready to take the accolades when it finally goes right, they should appreciate that the buck also stops at their desks when things are not moving in the right direction or are not what they should be.

What has the government done since assumption of office to remedy the situation which it acknowledged and recognised at its inception? What strategy has it put in place to even ensure that the long, much-touted Youth Commission, when it finally leaves the realm of the imagination, will be able to apply a soothing balm to the epicentre of the festering sore?

How far have our leaders gone to implement, for example, the 2004 continental Ouagadougou Plan of Action which called on member states to diversify their economies into labour intensive industries and create opportunities for young people? What multi-sectoral approach is in place?

How is the government planning to ensure that the flood of dreams of these youths is being properly channelled and consolidated for the desired societal rejuvenation? - Because the issue, is like the bull in a china shop.

It’s not the despair that’s killing these youths. It’s the forlorn hope. It’s the lack of enabling environment for those of them who are willing, to thrive. It is the lack of leadership. It is the disparaging neglect. It is their exploitation. It is their neglect after being tools in the hands of those in whom they have placed their trust and confidence. It is the steady destruction of their dreams.

What you see, are brutally bleak and depressing pictures of lives half-lived and utterly bereft of hope as well as ‘raggedly-arsed’, pasty-faced kids reared on a diet of palm oil and rice and yet we wonder why the youths now develop behavioural problems.

We wonder why they fail at school; suffer mental issues; turn to drinks, drugs and crime as well as perpetuate AIDS. Is it any wonder then that graduates of our schools and universities are the chief political thugs, con artists and fake merchants?

How can we seriously progress as a nation or think that peace will reign forever when millions of unemployed youths watch, as mindless leaders gorge on our scarce resources; and an uncaring system that further enhances their deepening frustration, by preaching the sermon of austerity from the throne of opulence.

We are yet halfway into another year and if left as we are, will end up repeating the mistakes of the past and continue with the indiscretion of past administrations’ whose neglect of this vital organ brought us to where we are now.

Unless the government takes urgent, concrete and practical steps to deal with the issue of those who have passed school age and whose lives have been blighted by our senseless war and greed as well as those churned out yearly into the labour market without corresponding opportunities our new ‘smooth’ roads that is taking all our attention will become highways to hell.  

If we don’t deal with those who have watched life pass them by through no faults of theirs, our designer homes will become fortresses. Our streets littered with checkpoints and our lives a misery. Mentally, this neglected segment of our nation see society as indebted to them and since it won’t pay back by improving their lot and giving them comfort, their only orientation is to grab and loot by force if necessary.

When they join the police, rather than serve, they oppress and extort. When they join the ministries they pollute them by creating obstacles to diligence. When they join the financial sector, they risk your future and when they go into politics…… God help us all.

The half-baked graduates of our institutions realise their inadequacies and take their pound of flesh while also becoming a clog in the wheel of progress resulting in our search for foreigners for our salvation. Those who see themselves as sidelined from mainstream society become resentful and ‘saboteurs’ with a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ mentality and even overseas educated Sierra Leoneans are seen as usurpers.

The government can continue to trumpet roads, Bumbuna etc but the millions of youths caught in subservient existence are not impressed. They want food. They want cheaper cost of living. They need help to ‘free’ their minds and souls. They want to leave the status of second class citizens. They want to stop being sex slaves and drug couriers, cultists and thugs.

If all their lands are given to foreigners and political jobbers, no amount of money pumped into agriculture without them will engineer the kind of agrarian society of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s nor will it attract them back to the soil.

If the vital ethos is missing from those at the top, forget the Sermon on the Mount as they can discern reality even if they have no voice for their feelings. Give them their dignity back and watch them flourish. Help shape their belief in the possibility of improving their lives and see the transformation.

Experience has shown that direct government intervention in employment creation always ends up enriching a few. So what the government can do among other things is to create the environment for the private sector to thrive; encourage and give incentives to work as well as create wealth through hard work and not patronage.

The so called growth performance has not met the self-actualisation aspirations of the youths and it is an explosive device. It is a cobweb in our system. It is a reflection of an indolent and insensitive political class. It is tragic because it is also one of the key developmental signposts of a new Sierra Leone.

We need something strategic and fast. The government appears to be struggling with direction and what is most important for progress. Is this because it is not a show-off like roads, etc? I wonder.

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