With tens of thousands of youths still out of work more than five years after the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, many say that prospects for employment will be what they demand of the new leaders they are to elect in July.
In the capital, Freetown, young men loiter on street corners, in bars and in front of televisions in cafes. Many of them are former fighters.
"They are largely illiterate school dropouts seeking a living from petty trading, narcotic drug peddling, prostitution and theft,” according to a policy document on youth activities by the Ministry of Youth and Sports. It said the majority of the idle youths fled their communities during the war and gravitated to cities such as Freetown on the coast, and Bo and Kenema in the east.
The United Nations estimates unemployment to be about 65 percent in Sierra Leone. Human rights groups have warned about the potential for unemployed youths in Sierra Leone, as well as in neighbouring Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, to be drawn into conflict. All of those nations have experienced civil war or social upheaval in the past decade.
“Current levels of unemployment among young men and women in West Africa are a ticking time bomb for the region and beyond,” according to “Youth Unemployment and Regional Insecurity in West Africa,” a report published in 2006 by the United Nations Office for West Africa (UNOWA).
“This is not just a social disaster and a huge wasted economic asset,” the report said. ”Ever-rising joblessness among youths and the desperation that accompanies it undermines the possibility of progress in those countries in the region that are emerging from conflict.”
The report said that until the situation changes, the likelihood of having genuine peace, security and development in West Africa remains small. The general and presidential elections scheduled for 28 July will be the second elections held since the end of the decade-long civil war. The poll is widely regarded as a test for the country’s peacebuilding efforts.
Although most youths lack jobs, some former fighters in Freetown manage to earn a little money by pushing carts made of scrap wood, called 'omolanke', to help traders transport their commodities.
Photo: Ansu Konneh/IRIN
|Patricia Sowa sells cigarettes and candy to make a living in the capital, Freetown|
"Things are not well for us young people in Sierra Leone,” said 19-year-old Mohammed Kombay. When asked, few of the youths interviewed in Freetown would admit to being a former combatant.
“Most of us earn the highest amount of 10,000 Leones [about US$3]. This is very small for us when we take into consideration the high cost of living in Freetown," Kombay said.
Patricia Sowa, who is in her 20s, sells cigarettes and candy out of a wooden box. "The youth of this country need opportunities where we can work and earn at least something that would help sustain us,” she said.
“Things are tough on us, and as for me I refused to join my friends in the streets to prostitute, because it is risky venture," she said. "Even this cigarette business, things are not moving smoothly. I hardly make money."
The Sierra Leonean government and the UN agree that addressing youth unemployment is key to consolidating peace in the country.
"Together with international partners, the Sierra Leonean government and the UN have agreed that there is a need to provide gainful employment for these youths... We have identified them as a major factor for peacebuilding," Carolyn McAskie, UN assistant secretary-general for Peacebuilding Support, told IRIN.
"One of the big issues of the Peacebuilding Commission is finding short and longer term solutions to these problems," she said.
Photo: Ansu Konneh/IRIN
|Youths participate in roadside clean-up as part of the Sierra Leonean government's plan to provide employment|
For its part, the Youth and Sports Ministry has launched its Youth Employment Scheme (YES) to hire youths for nationwide roadside clean-up operations.
"The key challenge facing this country after the war is the productive engagement of our young people… failure to engage in productive activities might compromise the gains in making the country peaceful and stable," said Dennis Bright, youth and sports minister.
He said there are currently 9,000 youths hired under YES and the government hopes to take on an additional 5,000 youths.
"This YES program is helping us to gain some money that can address some of our weekly family needs,” said Kanja Sillah, a 20 year-old former fighter. “But our concern is whether we will still have some permanent jobs to do, because an idle mind is a devil’s workshop."