(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Generation of war-scarred youths yearn to turn the page with polls

[Liberia] Soccer millionaire George Weah has attracted lots of younger Liberian voters to his campaign. Presidential and parliamentary elections are due to be held on 11 October. [Date picture taken: 2005/10/06]
Claire Soares/IRIN

Mohamed Dukuly was grabbed on his way home from school, and flown to the frontline to fight, still wearing his uniform.

Now, as Liberia prepares for its first polls since the end of a 14-year civil war, the ex-combatant is hoping for change, the chance of an education, and a normal life.

“Our time has been wasted,” he told IRIN on Monday, the eve of the landmark elections.

“I’m 22. I should be working, earning my own money and enjoying myself,” he said. “And look at me! I don’t know how I’m going to eat tonight and I can’t even spell my own name.”

Dukuly says he lives at Number 54, but there is no house to be seen, just a patch of waste ground in the rundown capital, Monrovia, where a collection of ramshackle huts has been cobbled together, and raw sewage dumped.

“We hope that change begins tomorrow,” said Dukuly, who used to fight for former president Charles Taylor. “We don’t need child’s play, we need someone who can deliver.”

None of the candidates vying to be Liberia’s next president can afford to ignore the youth vote.

More than 40 percent of the electorate is 27 or under, a generation that has lived half its life with civil war raging.

Nearly everyone lost a loved one or a friend. Many youths joined up or were forcibly conscripted into fighting for Taylor’s army or the two rebel groups.

All are now trying to rebuild their lives in a country where unemployment is estimated at 85 percent, there are only a handful of paved roads and even the capital does not have mains electricity or running water more than two years after the war ended.

Diplomats say that whichever of the 22 presidential candidates wins Tuesday’s election, young people should be a top priority.

Picking up the pieces

“That’s the great challenge – giving young people something to hope and strive for,” Alan Doss, head of the UN Mission in Liberia, told IRIN ahead of the ballot.

“In three words, it’s about jobs, jobs, and jobs. If this country cannot produce over time gainful employment for hundreds of thousands of young people… then the difficulties will return,” he said.

A job is certainly at the top of 20-year-old Richie Kwiete’s wish list.

“I am not supposed to be selling on the street, I should be in an office with a proper job. But I haven’t even graduated and I have to sell stuff just to pay for my schooling,” he said, trying to tempt a passer-by with a pirate DVD.

[Liberia] Young Liberian voters jostle for a view of presidential candidate and soccer millionaire George Weah from under the podium on which he speaking. [Date picture taken: 2005/10/08]

Claire Soares/IRIN
[Liberia] Young Liberian voters jostle for a view of presidential candidate and soccer millionaire George Weah from under the podium on which he speaking. [Date picture taken: 2005/10/08]
http://www.irinnews.org
Monday, October 10, 2005
[Liberia] Young Liberian voters jostle for a view of presidential candidate and soccer millionaire George Weah from under the podium on which he speaking. [Date picture taken: 2005/10/08]
Young Liberian voters jostle for a glimpse of George Weah from under the podium


For Kwiete, like many of his peers, there is only one person who can lead Liberia now. “King George”.

George Weah began his life playing football barefoot in a shantytown in Monrovia before going on to score goals for the world’s top football clubs, including AC Milan and Chelsea.

Now he wants a transfer from the soccer stadium to the presidential palace.

On Saturday, huge chunks of the steamy coastal capital were brought to a standstill when at least 100,000 supporters turned out to march more than 12 km to his final rally.

“Weah knows the cries of the common people. He is the only unifier,” said 21-year-old Victor Blamah, a former Taylor foot soldier, shouting to make himself heard above the crowds, packed with young faces.

Some people climbed trees to get a better view, others hid under the podium peeking through gaps in the stage as they waited for more than five hours for a glimpse of their man,

Most were without water, scores fell unconscious in the sweltering heat and party officials said one young supporter had died.

Weah’s critics point to his limited education, his wooden oratory style and his lack of political credentials. They say an experienced head is needed to rebuild the country and manage the vast resources of timber, diamonds and iron ore, which could make it one of the richest countries in the region.

Starry eyes or studied choice?

But his supporters hold him aloft as a rare success story in the country’s bloody past, untainted by previous political shenanigans and wealthy enough not to be tempted to plunder state coffers as previous leaders have done.

On the back streets of Clara Town, the suburb where Weah grew up and where wannabe Weahs still dodge the refuse and the stagnant water to kick a ball about, all are cheering for him.

[Liberia] An unconscious woman is pulled from the crowd after fainting at George Weah's final rally before Liberia votes for its new president. [Date picture taken: 2005/10/08]

An unconscious woman is pulled from the crowd after fainting at a political rally in 2005
Claire Soares/IRIN
[Liberia] An unconscious woman is pulled from the crowd after fainting at George Weah's final rally before Liberia votes for its new president. [Date picture taken: 2005/10/08]...
http://www.irinnews.org
Monday, October 10, 2005
Special court for sexual violence underway
[Liberia] An unconscious woman is pulled from the crowd after fainting at George Weah's final rally before Liberia votes for its new president. [Date picture taken: 2005/10/08]...
An unconscious woman is pulled from the crowd after fainting at a George Weah rally


“He has the keys to the mansion, he’s going all the way,” said Morris Williams, wearing a football shirt and baggy shorts.

Weah’s gesture of paying for the national football team to attend the continent’s top competition, his array of spectacular goals and the accolade of being the only African to have been voted the world’s best player, have earned him a great reputation with war-battered youngsters.

But they are swift to dismiss any notion of being starry-eyed.

“It’s not like that,” street vendor Kwiete said “The youth are the future but people don’t’ listen to us. George does.”

Weah, previously a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), prides himself on coming back to Liberia during the UN-led disarmament programme to persuade former combatants to hand over their weapons.

“Now they are all ready for change,” he told reporters as the election campaign drew to a close on Sunday. “They are ready for a new Liberia.”

However, not all the former-combatants and other youths are wearing Weah colours.

Dukuly from Number 54 is throwing his support behind Varney Sherman, a corporate lawyer considered to be a close ally of the current interim president, Gyude Bryant,

“People are telling us that we should go to school and learn,” he said. “So why am I going to vote for Weah who didn’t even get through high school?”

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