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Idle youth

Peace under threat

by Samwar S. Fallah

In depth

Some streets in Monrovia are still dangerous

Some streets in Monrovia are still dangerous

Liberia is grappling with problems that result from high youth unemployment. After 14 years of unbroken civil war, Liberia is gradually recuperating. From 1989 to 2003, all young people grew up in an environment of violence – and many actively took part in it. To truly find peace, the country needs to create more jobs. [ By Samwar S. Fallah ]

According to the UNDP, 55 % of Liberia’s population is under the age of 20, and 40 % is under the age of 15. Non-governmental organisations estimate the unemployment rate at 65 to ­70 %. Those who have work, however, only have low incomes.

Idle and unemployed youths pose a stark problem, as Taiwon Gongloe, Liberia’s labour minister concedes. With support of the UNDP, his ministry has carried out a survey to determine the actual rate of unemployment. As D+C went to press in early July, the data had not been published.

Many Liberians blame the problem of idle youth on inadequate re-integration of former fighters. Disarmed combatants were only kept at cantonment sites for about three days on average, then given their disarmament package and allowed to go home. That was hardly enough time to rehabilitate individuals who had spent a good amount of their youth living through war and engaging in brutality.

During the civil war, many Liberian youths became accustomed to flamboyant lifestyles, indulging in whims including alcohol and narcotic drugs. Consumer goods were available to those who had weapons and were ready to act violently. Today, most social activities require money. Young men without jobs often resort to crime to fund not only pleasures but the basic needs of survival.

Every day groups of idle and unemployed youths get together at local tea shops called “hatai”. For 27 year old Abraham Dorley, this is a way to keep himself busy: “I have nothing to do, so I come here every day at 9 am to sit and discuss soccer and politics to keep me up. If I stay at home, frustration will kill me.” These young people are literally wasting their time. They have no meaningful occupation.

Liberia’s civil war ended in 2003 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in Accra, Ghana. Soldiers from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were deployed in Liberia, followed later by a full takeover by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL). The Accra Accord provided for the disarmament of fighters from all war-participating groups, including former President Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), the Movement for Peace and Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) and the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), the largest rebel group.

The objectives of the National Commission on Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration and Resettlement (NCDDRR) were
– the disarmament of more than 50,000 fighters and
– a resettlement package that provided formal education, vocational training and opportunities to become contributing members in the post-war society.

Firearms

The challenge was huge. Almost all persons concerned were younger than 35, and some only nine years old. The NCDDRR offered $ 150 per surrendered weapon plus free access to institutions of formal education and vocational training. However, many former fighters only took the money. They missed the chance to learn how to contribute to reconstruction.

The disarmament process turned into a business affair: ex-fighters traded guns for money, even sending friends and relatives to hand in guns and bring the money back to them on a commission basis. In 2005, some ex-fighters realised that the ­$ 150 was a small sum compared to what they could get by using the guns to intimidate and steal from ordinary Liberians. They formed a gang and took over the Guthrie Rubber Plantation Company in Liberia’s northern counties. They started to make money by illegally trading raw rubber materials.

At the time, the National Transitional Government of Liberia (NTGL), an interim administration born out of the Accra Accord, was running the country. It proved unable to drive the armed gang from the plantation. Police stations and other public facilities were targeted and sometimes burned down. The gang terrorised civilians and forced them to work as rubber tapers. In the end, UNMIL troops had to use force to expel the culprits.

Nonetheless, the plantation remained a hub of violence. Again and again their was labour unrest, and during strikes, weapons were used. Former fighters had obviously not surrendered all firearms. The situation only improved after the elected government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office in November 2006. President Sirleaf mandated the Rubber Planters Association of Liberia (RPAL), an association of rubber farms owners in Liberia to manage the farm, which eased the labour unrest. Today, the plantation is run by Sime Darby, a Malaysian company, and matters are calm.

Unemployed youth, however, are still creating problems at other plantations in Liberia, including the Sinoe and Cavalla Rubber Plantations in the country’s southeastern region. For several years, Liberia’s largest park, the Sapo National Park in Sinoe County, has been under the control of youths involved in illicit mineral mining and illegal hunting. From 2005 to 2007, the situation was so dangerous that governmental security forces did not enter the park. The park is still held by the youths, although their activities and the violence have reduced considerably.

Violent crime, including armed robbery and rape, remain prevalent in Liberia. In the years 2006 to 2008 matters were particularly bad because thieves no longer waited until night, operating in daylight instead. Today, some of Monrovia’s streets are no-go zones infested with criminals. They loiter the neighbourhoods at night, but will also mug people during the day. Some pretend to be car loaders and wait for people to get into their cars before attacking them. Police officers stay away unless there is a planned raid involving a large number of officers. Carey, Gurley and Center Streets are among the most dangerous streets in Monrovia.

Opportunity to loot

On February 26, youths took to the streets in Lofa County, protesting the mysterious death of a teenage girl. The dead body was found near a mosque, and the actual cause of her death was not established. The protest turned violent. Some people started burning churches, mosques and houses. They killed at least four persons. Nearly all arrested for alleged involvement were youngsters. Kolayein Morlu, ­a young man of 29 who lives in the area, later admitted that he and other youth have nothing to do and when there is some misunderstanding between opposing tribes, they use the situation to loot.

It is hardly a surprise that ordinary Liberians are at unease with the anti­social behaviour of these men, who are almost always young. A typical response is mob action, with people taking the law into their hands. The sad truth is that officers of the Liberian National Police (LNP) struggle to stem the illegal activities of the unemployed youth.

Attempts to keep the youngsters busy with useful activities have been made. With the help of international organisations like the UNDP, the Liberian government introduced a programme where youths are given cleanup jobs like sweeping roadsides and clearing garbage from the streets of Monrovia. In exchange they get a minimum wage of $ 3 per day. However, many young people are too proud to accept this kind of work, they prefer criminal activities as a means of survival. Unless programmes and incentives are put in place that attract young people to move on from their habitual street life, Liberia is ­facing a troubled future.