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Unpromising future

Explosive youth

by Joschka Philipps
Guinea’s high rate of youth unemployment is contributing to political tensions and crisis. Especially in Conakry, the capital city, young people have vented their anger. They have reasons to protest, but they are ambiguous political actors because they are easily manipulated for political purposes. [ By Joschka Philipps ]

No jobs, no electricity, no running water, hardly any affordable hospitals, schools or youth centres, no perspectives – and this list could be continued. Most of the young people in Guinea’s capital city, Conakry, grow up in slum-like neighbourhoods, with no prospect of a life in safe conditions, stable jobs or the possibility to provide for families – not to mention health care or social security.

When children and adolescents earn money, it is mostly thanks to menial, informal jobs. Girls sell cigarettes, oranges or other merchandise in the streets, amidst heavy traffic. At the intersections, young men try to win customers for taxis, barely earning more than the equivalent of a few cents per hour. Many spend the day without any significant productive activity, at times in criminal gangs. Girls mostly stay at home in order to help their families. Many of them work as prostitutes.

Guinean adolescents aspire to consumerism, but they suffer from a constant lack of money. Family solidarity in their homes is shaken by polygamy and ­violence. At the same time, there is a growing indignation at the corrupt state. Members of older generations shamelessly exploit top positions of the state at the expense of the young people’s chances. The political implications of youth frustration, however, have become serious.

Structural shortcomings

The year 2006 was marked by economic crisis and food-price inflation. After a series of protest rallies and violent clashes, President Lansana Conté resigned in 2007. The next government did not last long. In 2008, a coup d’état brought Moussa Dadis Camara to power. The coup leader, however, was unable to assert his power (see box). In December last year, he was shot and severely wounded. Sekouba Konaté, his deputy and current interim president, has announced elections for June – with no candidates from the military junta.

This could be read as a positive turn and there might indeed be hope for a democratic future, were it not for the massive structural problems. The economy is in a dismal state, unemployment is rife and young people are angry because they have no perspective.

The greatest danger is that politicians may sway adolescents to spread violence in the election campaign. Since mid-March, politicians have been paying youngsters to drive through the streets on pickup trucks, playing loud music and praising a certain candidate.

As the elections are approaching, many Guineans fear that some paid youngsters will start throwing stones and attack competing parties. A small remuneration and some ethnic inciting can suffice to trigger violence as a deadly riot proved last September.

Because the young people of Guinea fundamentally lack economic perspectives and orientation, their protest potential constantly threatens the political order. Any future government will swiftly have to create educational opportunities and jobs in order not to fall victim of the same kind of protests most opposistion leaders have supported in recent years. The question is how to create more employment.

Cooperation with the West

Guinea dropped statist socialism in 1984, when President Lansana Conté came to power after Sékou Touré’s death. Aligning itself to the West, the government adopted privatisation policies and began to cooperate with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Public-sector expenditure was cut, and no young government officials were recruited.

As public-sector industries were privatised, the economy became more and more informal. It is true that, for the first five years after Touré, growth rates rose to around 2.6 % from an even more dismal ­0.25 % before. Nonetheless, agriculture and the production of goods was in stagnation or even decline.

Given that the state not only taxes private-sector companies excessively, but also collects bribes underhand, it has become cheaper to import food and manufactured goods than to produce such items domestically. Even though climatic conditions are favourable for agriculture, Guinea basically exports mineral commodities: diamonds, gold and, most important, bauxite – the basic component of aluminium. The mining sector, however, can hardly create additional jobs and therefore does not offer any perspective to unemployed city-dwellers.

The urban labour market consists of public-sector jobs on the one hand and poorly-paid menial, informal jobs on the other. Higher education often ­becomes a handicap. Currently 60 % of university graduates are unable to find a job in Guinea. Most of them hope to be employed in the public sector. As there is hardly any private-sector production of goods, there is no demand for white-collar professionals.

Moreover, vacancies are not normally filled on the basis of merit. What matters is social contacts as well as family and clan background. For instance, a shop owner of a specific clan will likely be under pressure by his family to hire a cousin, a nephew or at least someone from the home village, irrespective of those persons’ abilities. Building a business thus implies an enormous responsibility towards the extended familiy – so hardly anyone bothers to become an entrepreneur. Such attitudes thwart productivity, economic growth and the creation of jobs.

In Conakry, the labour market will only thrive, once economic policy changes to encourage manufacturing, formal trade, qualified services and the export of agricultural products. For the sake of development, moreover, performance must be appreciated as employment criterion, and so must formal qualification.

Perspectives beyond formal education

Integrating the young people into the labour market and providing them with opportunities is crucial for a stable political development in Guinea. However, this task has been neglected for decades. Many youngsters linger on the fringes of society, with no chances of meaningful participation and little hope that their personal abilities will ever be in demand. Many are no longer prepared to earn money with honest work.

Wealth and consumerism are important – young people dream of steady jobs and more money. But their role models are rarely skilled professionals. Because formal education seems just as unattainable as a permanent job young Guineans tend to worship rappers and soccer players who are admired for their talent. Moreover, they envy policemen who have the power to randomly confiscate money, or politicians who control and disburse public funds and are venerated by their supporters.

The uproar of young people against the moral shortcomings of politics doesn’t imply that they wouldn’t adopt the same positions and practices themselves if they only could. Back in 2007, Conté’s corrupt politics were not just rejected because he failed to conform with the law. Protest was rather an expression of the frustration of a large majority in society that couldn’t buy food while the political élite was enriching itself thanks to its control of the country’s commodities.

Young Guineans’ protests were loud and violent. In early 2007, public buildings and state symbols were set on fire – and so were the villas of many politicians. The urban youth took the political stage with a vengeance, proving that marginalisation is indeed a political problem.

Population growth and “ghetto” culture

Conakry’s population quadrupled in the past 25 years. Today, the city counts two million people. In most neighbourhoods, people lack fundamental civic amenities: They live without water pipes, electricty supply is unreliable and garbage is not collected. Many areas of the capital are improvised labyrinths of corrugated iron and concrete. Streets off the main roads are impassable; there are no street names and no house numbers.

In the “problem neighbourhoods”, the state is mostly absent. If officers dare to access these areas, as happened in 2007 during the conflicts with militant young people, guerrilla-like battles are likely to break out. The territory is partly controlled by armed gangs who will defend it against intruders – other gangs or the agents of the state.

Work does not define everyday life and nobody really owns anything. As a result, the “neighbourhood” or “ghetto” becomes the proud property of a gang: it is a territory that needs to be defended. The gang has its own set of rules, its own specific slang and code of behaviour. Instead of patiently accepting social exclusion, this kind of “ghetto” attitude is about actively keeping out other people from one’s own territory. Unable to resolve the structural problems, the young people simply re-interpret them. Thus the unavoidable situation of sitting around at a street corner or in one of the small TV bars turns into “ghetto”-solidarity. For some of the adolescents, marijuana and alcohol are means of escape. While much of society has given up on them, the gang mentality boosts their self-esteem.

On TV, the young people see what they are denied. Western TV series show an economically carefree life. On the news, they hear about political and economic success in other African countries – like Ghana, South Africa or neighbouring Senegal. However, if they take a look from the corrugated iron café out into the streets, all they see is the garbage and stinking clogged sewers. When night falls, it gets pitch-dark in Conakry; most neighbourhoods have no street lights. Stray dogs roam through the city.

The disparity between their own world and the idealised and envied rich world beyond Conakry, as shown on TV every day, leads to an enormous frustration. It leads to ambiguous reactions: young people are torn between opportunism and a culture of protest.

Life as a fight

Given the constant economic hardship and hopelessness, many young people consider their life a constant fight. Due to the scarcity of resources, distrust among strangers is ubiquitous: everyone is aware of the fact that most people would do anything in order to obtain the maximum personal benefit.

Trust and economic cooperation only exist in certain groups: within the family, the extended family and clan, gangs or a close circle of friends. Towards the “others”, almost any behaviour that benefits one’s group – and subsequently oneself – feels legitimate.

Since the 1990s, a uniform political protest culture has increasingly been forming in Conakry, nonetheless. It reacts with harsh criticism to grievances and intervenes in public discourse. On national TV, there ­only used to be shows that were loyal to the regime.

Today, however, you can watch videos featuring young rappers who openly criticise the political élite’s corruption as well as their ethno-strategic election campaign. Most Guineans are convinced that under the new government, the young people will no longer accept corruption as was the case under Lansana Conté and that they will take to the streets as soon as there are indications of a regression to cleptocracy.

The two reactions to the national grievances – the struggle for personal benefit as well as collective protest – are not mutually exclusive. Owing to the economic hardship, many young Guineans support the campaigns of corrupt politicians whom they basically condemn.

What matters most, therefore, is to draft a new kind of economic policy to create jobs for Conakry’s youth. Moreover, Guinea needs an adequate policy to address the concerns of the urban youth. Only once the young generation will see a desirable future for themselves and are enabled to earn enough money, they will constructively contribute to the country’s development. Otherwise, they will oppose and reject whatever government is in power, serving as a cheap tool for political activists.