The Crisis of Youth in Postwar Sierra Leone: Problem Solved?

Krijn Peters. Africa Today. Volume 58, Issue 2. Winter 2011.

In 2000, the United Nations deliberated on a resolution to ban diamonds from Sierra Leone-which allegedly caused and fueled the decade-long civil conflict (1991-2002). Ibrahim Kamara, the Sierra Leonean ambassador to the United Nations, commented that

[The war] has nothing to do with the so-called problem of marginalized youths or, as some political commentators have characterized it, an uprising by rural poor against the urban elite. The root of the conflict is and remains diamonds, diamonds[,] and diamonds (Crossette 2000)

At the time this comment was made, the war in Sierra Leone was becoming increasingly known as one fought over the control of “blood diamonds,” underscoring the so-called thesis of “greed, not grievance” (Collier 2001; Smillie, Gberie, and Hazleton 2000) as the best framework to explain the conflict. According to the ambassador, the few “political commentators” who argued that the conflict had its root in the marginalization of young people were completely wrong, but many young people who participated in the conflict would-just like these commentators-disagree with their countryman.

Studies have shown that young ex-combatants considered the war and their participation in it to have been motivated by grievances, rather than greed (Humphreys and Weinstein 2004; Richards, Archibald, Bah, and Vincent 2004). Lack of educational and employment opportunities for young people were the principal frustrations listed by the ex-fighters. The young people in these studies regularly accused older and more established members of society-typically Freetown-based politicians or village chiefs-of being corrupt and selfish, and not having much interest in supporting the development of their younger subjects (Peters 2006). Ex-combatants from rural backgrounds frequently suggested that the exploitation of their labor by rural elites through customary laws (and the manipulation of these) was another reason for their active involvement in the war. In short, these studies suggested that young ex-combatants did feel marginalized, and that Sierra Leone was experiencing a crisis of youth, which triggered or at least fueled an armed conflict in which most of its combatants were young people.

While the views and interpretations of young ex-combatants have been abundantly documented, those of youth not involved in fighting-although often still affected by the war-in the troubled West African region have been less studied, and those living in rural settings or provincial towns are even further off the research and policy radar. As Straker observes: “Youths in large cities and young combatants involved in insurgency or counterinsurgency have shared centre stage in studies of youthful Africa” (2007:299). In short, there seems to be a double bias in the focus of research on African youth; however, noncombatant but war-affected youth usually outnumber youthful ex-combatants. For each child soldier or youthful combatant in Sierra Leone, there must have been approximately fifty young people who did not take up arms. This in itself would be sufficient ground to study these groups, for instance, to understand why and how these youngsters avoided conscription by armed forces, but it would be interesting to find out if these war-affected up-country youths share the interpretations of their more violent counterparts about the existence of a crisis of youth and whether or not this was a cause of the war. If this is the case (and it is indeed what the data presented below indicate), it would suggest that this crisis not only is a real one, but that it is experienced by a much larger segment of young people in the country than only by those who took up arms.

This article gives voice to those who experienced a decade-long conflict but refused to fight with weapons. It presents a debate that was recorded in November 2001 at a youth drop-in center in the war-affected eastern town of Kenema, just before the end of the war. The debate focused on the question of who was responsible for the problems of the youths: the youths themselves, or their elders.

At the time of the debate, there was a great deal of uncertainty about what the future would hold. The disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process of ex-combatants was still in full swing, and there was no guarantee that the peace would hold, particularly with tensions building up again in neighboring Liberia. In retrospect, it is clear that the peace did hold and that the country would experience at least a decade without fighting. Does this peace mean that the crisis of youth had been addressed? That is, have the problems brought forward during the debate stopped having relevance in the postwar setting? Or did these never have a role in triggering or fueling armed conflict in the first place? This article will present the so-called problems of the youth-as articulated by themselves-and how these were perceived at the end of the conflict, as well as providing some discussion of their relevance before and after the war. The central question is this: does this so-called crisis of youth-which arguably caused or at least fueled the war-still have relevance to the everyday lives of youth in Sierra Leone after the end of war?

Being Young in Sierra Leone

Young people in rural and upcountry Sierra Leone are living in an ambiguous society. They are raised in a setting where traditional values and codes still have considerable effects on daily life. Decisions concerning important matters in rural communities are taken by the village chief and the elders. Most rural Sierra Leoneans will be judged under customary law, enforced by customary courts and chiefs, rather than by legislation based on national or international laws. The impact of the so-called “secret societies”-Poro for men and Sande/Bundu for women-is still considerable, particularly in rural areas, and it seems to have gained in strength again, after wartime disruptions. Many villages have limited access to state provisions, such as primary and secondary formal education, health services, electricity, and running water. Livelihood diversification is limited: young people in rural areas are likely to be involved in some form of (semi)subsistence farming for a living or-at least during the farming season-spending the whole day in the field and returning to their village at sunset. Girls are frequently pressured by their parents to marry at a young age (marrying at 15 or 16 years of age is not uncommon in the more isolated communities), and, if they come from a poor background, they may become the second or third wife of a much older husband (Archibald and Richards 2002).

At the same time, rural society is quickly changing, and more traditional ways of life-and their associated values-seem to appeal to less and less young people. Some of these changes were already taking place before the war, but others were clearly catalyzed by the war, and even further after the war, as, for instance, through the influx of UN peacekeeping forces and humanitarian aid workers. Youths increasingly have opportunities to engage in the more globalized world. The Internet is now available in nearly all the larger towns, and user costs have decreased annually. Use of mobile phones among youths has skyrocketed; again, most of the towns are linked up. With the massive import of cheap, mainly Chinese-made, consumer items, including radios, one can find even more young people listening to programs such as the BBC World Service or the Voice of America. Even in the remotest rural villages, it is not surprising to walk into a group of youngsters discussing global politics. National newspapers or regional and international magazines, which may be days, weeks, or even months old, have always been precious items for young people and a source of lively discussions. Video cinemas and road shows-one or two youths carrying a generator and video-equipment-showing American, Indian, and the ever-popular Nigerian films are a common sight in mining areas and larger villages. Local youths are rapidly becoming part of the “global village,” alongside their counterparts in the Western world. Even geographical isolation has been reduced: after the war, motorbike-taxis (see elsewhere in this special issue)-predominately young men navigating urban and rural settings on 50cc or 125cc motorbikes, transporting one or two passengers and their luggage or agricultural produce (Bürge and Peters 2010; Peters 2007b)-have connected remote communities that could not previously have been served by cars.

The Problems of the Youth: Who Is Responsible?

The above suggests that young people in Sierra Leone are living indeed in ambiguous times; however, growing up in one of the poorest countries on earth cannot be easy in any case, besides the fact that Sierra Leone is still recovering from the war. And if one’s opportunities and progression in life are further restricted by a weak state suffering from widespread and endemic corruption and an exploitative and unjust customary system (Archibald and Richards 2002; Meyer 2007), the number of problems and difficulties young people experience only increases further. But what exactly are these “problems” that young people encounter in their daily lives? In this section, I present extracts of youths formally discussing these problems. Their debate was one of many activities organized by the Youth Drop-In Centre of Conciliation Resources, Kenema, at the end of 2001. Kenema is the provincial capital of the Eastern Province, about three hundred kilometers from Freetown, close to the Liberian border. Before the war, it was noted as the center of the country’s timber business, in addition to government services. It served as the trading center for diamonds found in the north of Kenema District and for those found in eastern Pujehun District.

The Drop-In Centre attracted a wide range of young people, including secondary-school pupils, young laborers (such as petty traders and vocational apprentices), unemployed youth surviving as handymen, single teenage mothers, and young people from the nearby villages looking for entertainment. Some might have had a more active role in the conflict, but as the director of the center pointed out, the majority was noncombatant youth. The center would open around 9 o’clock in the morning and close around 5 in the afternoon. Daily activities included table tennis, scrabble, and playing draughts (checkers). A good number of school-going youth went to the center to do their homework, making use of the center’s library. The center organized a variety of activities, such as a volleyball tournament and a rally for International HIV/AIDS day, and it helped a group of single mothers set up a little restaurant. It organized afternoons when youths could debate predetermined topics.

The proposition for the debate presented below was: Who is responsible for the problems of the youth? The youths themselves or the elders? This is not an uncommon topic for formal and informal discussion at schools and youth centers, on the street, and in palm-wine bars; but at the time, it was not the common conceptual framework through which, for instance, the war was understood.

Among the young people present at this debate (about fifty in total, between the ages of 12 and 25), six debaters were chosen from those who put themselves forward as willing to participate (without indicating their preference for either of the positions). Three were supposed to argue that the youths themselves were responsible for their problems and to emphasize the difficulties they found themselves in, and three were expected to argue that the elders-a rather general term, but interpreted by the debaters as being parents, elders, chiefs, and politicians-were responsible for the “problems” of the youth. Interestingly, these “problems” were not predefined, so it was left to the debaters to bring to the debating floor what they considered to be problems. It soon became clear with the progression of the debate that the debaters considered politics, education, and employment the paramount problems.

The debate had similarities with an open-ended qualitative interview (as it did not predefine the problems) and a focus-group discussion (since the debaters all commented on the same issue within a peer audience or group). However, gathering data from this occasion contained a methodological weakness that the open-ended interviews and focus group discussions do not have. As with many debates organized at high schools or youth centers, the main purpose was educational: young people learned debating skills, and, perhaps more importantly, they were challenged to view issues from different points of view. Since the debaters were randomly allocated to a position-for or against-by the organizers, the position they were expected to defend did not necessarily have to present their real conviction. In other words, those who were arguing that the youths were to blame for the problems might well have believed that it was in fact the elders who were the real culprits, and vice versa.

One way to overcome this weakness, at least partially, is to pay attention to the reactions of the public. In this particular setup, a good indication of what young people in Sierra Leone feel about these issues and about the question “who is to blame” was given by the audience through verbal reactions (an approving “yeah” or a disapproving “boo”) and applause. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the audience most of the time supported the arguments of the elders-to-blame side, but the audience sometimes supported the other side, thus indirectly blaming themselves-or their peers. The real value of the debate was in the kind of issues these young people defined as problems and the reasons they experienced these issues as problems. Are the problems of a rather trivial and perhaps typical adolescent nature? Or are they so serious and do they have such a great effect on young people that one indeed can state that there is a crisis of youth, or even that these problems contributed to the outbreak of the war?

The proponents of each proposition debated in two rounds: the first round was meant to articulate the arguments, and the second allowed for a response to opponents’ arguments. The debate was tape-recorded and later transcribed. What follow here is an edited version of the debate, arranged around the topics that were brought forward. To give some context, each topic is briefly introduced. Alfred, Abdullah, and Augustine made the case for holding the youths responsible for their problems; Bendu, Bobby, and Boikai claimed that the elders were responsible.

To begin this discussion, a statement from each debate group is presented, which reflects in broad lines the central thrust of each group’s position. The debaters who held the youths responsible for their own problems acknowledged that the elders had not always created the perfect climate for youths to progress in life, but they argued that if one really tries and is determined, one will succeed. Parents do not want the downfall of their own children, and numerous opportunities and institutions are available for those who are really willing; or so they argued.

Alfred: Is there anybody who does not like to enjoy the fruits of his or her own labor? The answer is no. Every parent is trying to improve the life of his or her child, but it is the youths themselves who deny their own development. Nobody on earth who gave birth to a child is not willing to take the responsibility for that child. Parents will care greatly, and will allow you to go to school, but you have to make an effort as well.

The debaters who held the elders responsible for the problems of the youth typically focused on the limitations for youth development due to (allegedly) deliberate obstructions created by elders; they accused elders of not assisting youths who are in need, though they have the means and the power to do so.

Bobby: Let me remind you all of the proverb “Raise up the child the way he should grow, so that when he is old he will not depart from it.” But most parents leave their children to grow up by themselves. I want to believe that all of you agree that no man is an island, and no man stands on himself [sic]. If there are youths without any support, the elders and leaders of this country who are in the position to help these youths survive or get their education should do so, but they do not care for youths.


Young people in Sierra Leone often have considerable interest in political matters; however, this should be of little surprise if one looks at the country’s political developments since independence (in 1961) and how politics have affected the lives of ordinary civilians. Political turmoil started soon after Sierra Leone’s first prime minister, Sir Milton Margai, of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), died in 1964, and his brother, Albert Margai, took over. Accusations of state corruption became widespread, and Margai lost the elections in 1967 to Siaka Stevens of the All Peoples Congress (APC), but a military coup prevented Stevens from taking office. It was only the following year, after a second coup, that he was installed as prime minister. Two years later, the SLPP was the only political opposition party allowed in Sierra Leone, and within a decade, in 1978, the country officially became a one-party state under the APC. Stevens organized the state on patrimonial principles, with himself as the top patron (Reno 1995), buying off the opposition or using the infamous Special Security Department to suppress resistance. In 1985, after nearly twenty years of rule, he handed power over to his hand-picked successor, Major-General Joseph Momoh. Meanwhile, the country had gone bankrupt. Momoh remained in power until he fled the country, following a coup by junior fighters in 1992, one year into the war. During the war years, several regimes were successively in power: a military government (National Provisional Ruling Council), 1992-1996; an elected government (SLPP), 1996-1997; a military junta (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council plus Revolutionary United Front), 1997-1998; the elected government of the SLPP, 1998-1999; and a government of national unity (SLPP plus RUF and AFRC elements), 1999-2001.

Alfred: If I am not mistaken, the negative attitude of the youth, as far as their political participation is concerned, is for their own account, and there is no way the elders can be responsible for that. If we talk of political participation, we talk about franchise … I must conclude that although we have all the rights and we are able to take every step to give a voice to our political ideologies, it seems to be a part of our attitude not to do so. If you have that right to take part in elections, why not make yourself the first person to participate in the political process? But we, the youth, do not do that. We have a negative attitude; we are saying that, since we are kids, we must not get involved in politics … When we talk of human rights, the elders are under the law, too, and can only impose something on you if the law is demanding that. When we talk about franchise, which is the right to vote and the right to be voted for, nobody is allowed to stop you from running for an election or to vote. And you are allowed to vote at the age of 18 and upwards.

Bobby: The elders used to say that the youth are the future leaders of tomorrow, but they do not give us the opportunity to become good and responsible leaders. I want to believe that the actual age of becoming a president in Sierra Leone is presently 60 years of age, but that they want to change that to 65 years. Is that an age of youths or elders? They have abused our franchise, and the youth have no rights. It are [sic] the elders who are humiliating the youth.

Boikai: The elders, if not one hundred percent, but at least for ninety percent, are responsible for the downfall and suffering of the youth. Let us just look to the political situation in our country. In most cases of destruction in Sierra Leone, the elders have used the youth to destroy and to get political power, but as soon as the elders got power, they forget [sic] about the youth, who is languishing. Can you just imagine them saying, “Go and campaign for me and make your brothers to support me.” But as soon as they have entered the parliament, they forget about us.

Alfred makes a straightforward point: if young people feel they are not being heard by the elders or politicians, they should at least make use of the civil right to vote. In the 2002 and 2007 parliamentary and presidential elections, the turnout was close to 75 percent-which gives some indication that young people used that right; however, the electoral system for customary institutions, as for the elections of paramount chiefs and ordinary chiefs, is less transparent and democratic. According to customary law, one can vote in chief and paramount-chief elections only if one is a “tribal authority.” To become such an authority, one has to represent twenty taxpayers; in effect, young people are seldom tribal authorities. And these institutions have a significant effect on young people’s lives.

As Bobby argues, having the right to vote is one thing; having parties- and candidates-that genuinely represent young people is another issue. The political landscape remains dominated by two political parties: the SLPP and the APC. The Sierra Leone Young People’s Party (YPP) received only 0.2 percent of the votes in 2002 and did not participate in the 2007 elections. Charles Margai, son of the second and nephew to the first prime minister of Sierra Leone, created the People’s Movement for Democratic Change in 2005, which attracted quite some support among the youth; however, Margai, sixty years of age in 2005, can hardly be called young, though he was still seven years younger than the SLPP 2007 candidate, Solomon Berewa. Perhaps the 2007 victory of APC candidate Ernest Koroma can be partly attributed to his age: 53 at the time of the presidential elections. Still, one can wonder why more young people do not become active in national politics if they know they can probably count on a significant constituency. Contrary to what Bobby claims, the law states that parliamentary candidates have to be at least twenty-one years old, and presidential candidates must be at least forty years old.

Part of the answer to this may be in the significant costs that are associated with a parliamentary or presidential campaign and how voters’ support, including that of young people, is bought with handouts and promises, which are seldom kept. As Boikai correctly suggests, young people are willing to let their vote be bought-or even to let themselves be used as thugs by politicians to intimidate other voters. These practices, introduced by the late authoritarian ruler Siaka Stevens, took place again during the 2007 elections (Christensen and Utas 2008).


While political issues are high on the youths’ agenda, education holds the top position. It is “the key to a successful life,” according to most of the youths. This national obsession with education may be partly a colonial legacy. The English colonizers collaborated with the Krios-descendants of the freed slaves who established in 1787 the settlement that later became Freetown- for the administration of the colony, since they were better schooled, in Western education, than the native population. As a result, political and economic power and access to good jobs became linked to formal educational qualifications. During the nineteenth century, Freetown was known as the Athens of West Africa, with the University of Freetown and its famous Fourah Bay College as the first institution of higher education in the region; however, education in the rural areas never received much attention, with the exception of the Bo School for sons of chiefs, supported by the colonial administration, and Harford School for Girls in Magburaka, and it did not improve much after independence. Former president Momoh once said in a speech in the eastern district of Kailahun that “education was not a right but a privilege” (Richards [1996] 1998:19). According to Davies, “By 1987, less than thirty percent of children of secondary school age were still in school” (1996:13, cited in Keen 2003:80). Many youthful ex-combatants indicated that dropping out of school, or the closure or even collapse of the school for lack of maintenance, was an important “push factor” in joining one of the armed militias (Peters 2004; Peters and Richards 1998a, 1998b).

Youths often struggle for years to finish their formal education, if they can finish it at all. Children, if they do not have parents who can pay school fees or do not have other sponsors, may start working to save enough money to be able to attend for another one or two years. Work typically includes diamond mining or unskilled labor in the towns. In a country where youth unemployment has always been rampant, being educated in Sierra Leone is by no means a guarantee of getting a job.

Abdullah: The youth are not careful and serious about their education. The majority of the youth become dropouts. As you all know, education is the key to success, but then we see that the education rate in Sierra Leone is alarmingly low, although the youth say that they are the future leaders of tomorrow. Especially in Sierra Leone, the youth should be mindful about education, but instead they take themselves in radicalism, drug abuse, and such a like. The government has tried to reduce the rate of dropouts, but instead the number is increasing, and this is the responsibility of the youth. No elder would be happy to see his or her child parading on the street uneducated … All the vocational institutions around today are built by the elders. You as a youth can go there to learn anything you want and become a good future leader.

Bendu: The right to learn is our constitutional right. It should be a right to all, but it is only given to a few people who are affiliated with these powerful elders. They make sure that their sons or girlfriends, or their relatives, are the only ones who receive good education, and that is wrong. It is these elders who are sending their children to Europe to receive their education, after which they come back to rule us again, while we, the youth, remain behind and have to suffer to receive education.

Boikai: Today the most common word with school is school leaver or school dropout. That is because the elders are selfish and greedy. No elder will say “Come, let me help these young people to assist them in getting their education.” Instead, they make us to [sic] campaign for them by promising and deceiving us with free education in the future and things like that; but in the end, nothing will change.

Bobby: Parents send their children to school, but they fail to buy books or even pay the school fees. You can go to the vocational-training institutions, but there you see most of our colleagues struggling even to get tools, while our elders are enjoying themselves in the hotels and bars, lavishing the money foolishly instead of paying school fees for their children.

There are, indeed, as Abdullah suggests, young people in Sierra Leone who do not take education seriously and drop out of school with only themselves to blame; however, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the points made by Bendu, Boikai, and Bobby. Former President Momoh’s statement about education as a privilege, while politically untactful, nevertheless summarized the government’s position, using bursaries-and, in particular, overseas ones-as political handouts to the sons and daughters of party loyalists (Richards 1996). More recently, successive postwar governments have made commitments to make primary education accessible to all and free of charge (see, for instance, Government of Sierra Leone 2004), but promises of access to education-in the form of support for secondary-school students and bursaries for tertiary students-are still an important way for politicians and would-be politicians to gather support among youth, as Boikai rightly suggests. These days, primary (but not secondary) education is free in Sierra Leone, thanks mainly to the efforts of NGOs and direct budget support by international donors, but this is mainly limited to not having to pay for school fees. As Bobby points out, besides these fees, primary-school pupils need uniforms and stationery, and regularly turning up at school without them may get a student expelled. As a result, primary-school enrollment stands only at 69 percent (Maconachie and Hilson 2010). It is widely acknowledged that secondary-school pupils have to pay extra for special classes-organized by the teachers to supplement their low and often longdelayed salaries-to have any chance in passing their exams.

Job Prospects

The eleven years of conflict have had a devastating effect on the country’s economy, with most international firms pulling out of the country; but even before the war, decades of economic mismanagement and government corruption had resulted in an economic decline, which had brought the country nearly to bankruptcy in the 1980s. According to Reno, by the time Momoh had taken over the presidency from Stevens in 1985, about 70 percent of all exports were leaving the country through informal channels, while domestic- revenue collection was standing at 18 percent of 1977-1978 figures (Reno 1995:151). After the war, because of new foreign investments-mainly in the mining industry-and massive budgetary aid, Sierra Leone’s economy grew at an average of around 7 percent up to the moment the global economic crisis started, but this growth has generated fewer jobs than generally hoped for. Furthermore, the departure of UN peacekeeping troops in 2005 (with 17,500 the largest UN mission ever at the time) and that of many humanitarian NGOs, negatively affected job prospects for the better-educated part of the population.

At the time of the debate, in 2001, much of the more recent economic growth had not yet taken place.

Alfred: Some people say that youths are not allowed to take public offices, but you have to be determined. For instance, if you want to be the president, you have to determine yourself for that position. This is the same as it is with education: nobody will force you to become educated; you will only receive something if you are ready to make the effort.

Bendu: If a youth is qualified for a job and it happens that an elderly man is head of the department, you will not get that job because the elder will give it to his son or daughter, even when he or she is not qualified. It is only done so to be sure that he will be succeeded by a relative.

Young people in Sierra Leone have few options when it comes to employment. Entry into the formal job market, working for the government or with one of the larger (international) companies, is often well guarded by the patrimonial system, as pointed out by Bendu. With the right qualifications, but without the right connections and contacts, it is extremely difficult to get a formal (white- or even blue-collar) job, even if one is determined. Those from rural areas with limited education often stay in their villages and involve themselves in (semi)subsistence farming, a sector in which around 70 percent of the population is active and which is responsible for about half of the country’s gross domestic product. Others choose to leave their place of birth, either on a seasonal or a more permanent basis, and try their luck in the mining areas, where there is always demand for low-paid manual labor. Current estimates indicate that approximately 100,000 people, mainly young, are involved in the artisanal diamond-mining sector, and a further 200,000 people, with the majority being females, are involved in the country’s artisanal gold-mining sector (Maconachie and Hilson 2010). Still others go to the urban centers; but without any connections, they often end up in the unskilled, informal labor sector.

In 2008, President Koroma, elected in 2007, introduced his Agenda For Change, in which he identified youth unemployment, together with drug trafficking and corruption, as one of the three most significant security risks to the country. In the postwar environment, youth employment has not decreased much and still stands at around 70 percent. It is estimated that more than 200,000 jobs each year would have to be created to satisfy youth demand (Peters 2010). Without a regular income, young people remain locked into what Vigh terms “the social moratorium of youth,” a situation in which young people cannot attain social adulthood because of decades of economic hardship and a continuing gerontocratic control over resources (2006:96).

Money and Materialism

Sierra Leoneans living in urban and mining centers are exposed to an increasing amount of cheap consumer items, including sunglasses, sneakers, fashionable jeans, and mobile phones. Sometimes the little money young people have is spent on these items. This is not necessarily blind consumerism: sometimes, showing off or acting like a “big man” can attract notoriety and thus advance minor political ambitions. Richards interpreted the high-stake gambling of young rural dwellers in this way (1986:125). Thorsen describes a similar strategy implemented by Burkinabe child migrants, who return to their rural communities after spending time in an urban center and spend considerable amounts of money on items that have a more symbolic meaning-to impress peers, for instance-than a pure practical purpose (2006).

What the exact role of the armed conflict has been on the supposed materialism or consumerism of youth is unclear, but it has enabled young people who joined the fighting ranks and achieved senior positions to acquire goods that would be far beyond their reach during peacetime. Looted items often had to be handed over to the commanders (Humphreys and Weinstein 2004), but in situations of less rigid militia control, young fighters had considerable items at their demand. It is possible that the war and the subsequent postwar reconstruction phase, dominated by UN troops and international NGOs in large numbers of 4×4 cars, raised awareness among young people of what is possible.

The larger diamond-mining and diamond-trading areas have always been associated with a kind of spending culture: having worked for weeks or even months without any income, the finding of a high-quality diamond provides miners with a sudden amount of cash, which is frequently “burned” on consumer items. Postwar, the youthful motorbike taxi drivers are the equivalent of the successful miners, and many were miners who invested their diamond income wisely. A motorbike and a mobile phone-most riders have one-signal success and are much envied. Contrary to the geographic isolation of miners, motorbike riders are not restricted to mining centers or diamond-trading towns. Visiting or driving through isolated rural communities, they are seen by more and more youths as role models.

As becomes clear from the extracts below, youth may have a special interest in consumer goods these days, as is argued by one debater, but the debater’s opponent wonders if it is only the youths who have this interest.

Abdullah: Presently, there is a new fashion, which is also responsible for the downfall of the youth. As we know, we, the youth of today, are materialistic: we like to wear golden chains and rings and fashionable clothes, which all costs [sic] thousands of leones, something we cannot afford to buy; however, some youths try by all means to get the money. They even are willing to commit crimes for that. Parents cannot approve such behavior. In these kinds of situations, the youths are getting themselves into troubles [sic], so how can we hold the parents responsible?

Bendu: When you go to bars, you will meet the older people sitting and drinking all the money which they are supposed to use for helping their children at home. If the elders have money to maintain their children, they prefer to marry another wife to increase their status, rather than taking care of their children in a proper way.

Bobby: Out of greed, sometimes the parents themselves lead their daughter to prostitution. They say: “When you go to town, bring something back that satisfies me.” How do you think that girl will get any money, unless if she goes to her boyfriend and satisfies him? This is all just to satisfy her parents. And let us look to the rural areas. The parents there sometimes force their daughters into marriages just to get money, but if you have financial problems at home, why not try to solve it on your own and support the girl who wants to stand firm for her future? She might support you in the future.

A study by Okonkwo (2009) showed the extent to which some Nigerian female university students considered it normal that in exchange for sex with their “boyfriends,” their “boyfriends” had to satisfy them with presents, such as money or consumer items. They did not necessarily morally dismiss the idea of “sugar daddies”: older, but rich men, with whom a sexual relation was maintained in exchange for high-value presents. Sex has always been commoditized, whether for survival purposes in internal displaced and refugee camps for a handful of rice, or more voluntarily to satisfy luxurious needs. Extremely worrying in this respect are cases of sexual exploitation of IDPs and refugees by NGO workers and UN peacekeepers (Save the Children 2008), and the increase of child prostitution associated with the introduction of peacekeeping forces, as has happened in Mozambique and Cambodia (Whitworth 2004).

The point raised by Bendu-about men marrying a second or a third wife, rather than helping their children from their first wife-was rather vividly made by a child ex-combatant returning to his village of birth:

I told him [the interviewee’s father] that if he had not married so many wives and did not have so many children, he would have been able to assist his children properly. But he says that I must be quiet because that is not my business. You know, now he has raised a little money, he wanted to marry another wife, can you imagine? (Peters 2005:292)

As Bobby suggests, many marriages in rural Sierra Leone have a strategic character, with girls of poorer families in near-obligatory marriages to wealthier or more politically influential men, often of a much older age. If the marriage is unsatisfactory (e.g., in the case of domestic violence), or if the girl’s husband has died and the girl’s family cannot pay back the brideprice, the girl is likely to be encouraged by her own family to stay with the abusive husband, in the first scenario, or to marry a relative of her late husband, in the second scenario (Richards, Bah, and Vincent 2004:4). The average age of marriage in rural communities remains at around 15.5 years for girls; in the remotest villages, the age of marriage is lower than it was before the war- which can be explained by the declining educational opportunities for girls (Richards, Bah, and Vincent 2004:5).


Disobedience of youth is as much a global phenomenon as it is a recurring historical phenomenon. This can be exemplified thus:

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect to their elders … They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.

While this passage may look pretty much like the complaint of a contemporary parent or elder, it is actually attributed to Greek philosopher Socrates (in Plato’s Republic, book 4) who lived more than twenty-four centuries ago. And to give another, more recent example:

The world is passing through troubled times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.

While this is clearly a more recent comment than Socrates’ observation, it is still more than nine centuries old, attributed to a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit.

It seems that in all times and places, older people consider younger people less respectful than they were when they were young themselves. Present-day parents might consider their children rebellious, but they easily forget that they themselves may have been labeled as such by their parents. Some of these feelings may be related to particular sentimental memories of the past; others may be related to more general changes in society. Major social upheaval, such as armed conflict, can act as a catalyst for societal change and may make people reflect on the prewar period as overly peaceful or ordered.

Sierra Leone is a gerontocratic society, and older people are normally held in high esteem and expect to be respected by those who are younger than them, in particular by children and youth; however, during wartime, these values were often turned upside down (Keen 2005:56). Particularly within the RUF, fighters were promoted because of their skills in fighting, not because of their age. Youths and even children-categories that had little societal or political clout before the war-could exercise considerable power when holding a gun. It was perceived as particularly humiliating if one was told by a junior fighter to do something. Children at the age of 14 or 15 could become commanders, giving orders to fighters and civilians who might have been twice their age. Clearly, the wartime situation put relations to the extreme, but it may have helped strengthen or accelerate a process of youth emancipation after the war. Community elders sometimes claim that this is partly the result of the work of NGOs, but they point out a pragmatic reason for a change in attitude: the lack of financial means to execute power. According to some elders in Kenema District just after the war:

The NGOs sensitised us about the necessary changes that were needed. We attended a workshop about the role of the chiefs and about the youths … Youths can still help their parents but not in the same way as before the war. This change is because of the war. Before, the parents took care of all the financial responsibilities, but now they cannot do that because they do not have the money. So the youth say: why should we help for nothing? (Peters 2006:139)

To return to the youth debate, Alfred identifies a relation between disobedience and poverty in the passage below: if parents have little or nothing to offer to their children, it is likelier that the children will go their own way and try to satisfy themselves. The thrust of his argument is similar to what was discussed by the village elders above, and it can be extrapolated to the state level: if the state is incapable or unwilling to meet the basic needs of life, people may turn away or even revolt.

Alfred: It is the misconduct of the youth which has made their parents to develop a negative attitude towards them. Especially if the parents are poor, the child is disobedient to his or her parents by saying that he or she will do things on his or her own, and they will be annoyed by that, and they will not do anything for you anymore; but if you obey your parents, they will sponsor you till you are able to make your own future, but the reality is that the youth are not listening to their parents and forget that they are their supporters.

Bendu makes what at first glance may be taken to be a contradictory statement, but it turns out to be a rather nuanced one, attempting to communicate the distinction between “right to command” and “forcing.” She acknowledges that elders have the final say over youth, but this should not become blunt force:

Bendu: The elders in some societies, such as this one, have the right to command the youth. You [as a youth] should obey them, but they prefer to force the youth to do things they think are good for them.

Boersch-Supan (2010) comes to a similar conclusion in her interviews with rural youths in Sierra Leonean districts with regard to the issue of obligatory community labor-normally one to a number of days per month spent on community endeavors (such as road brushing, village plantation cleaning, or the cleaning of the village) that are supposed to benefit the whole community. She finds that young people do not object to their role as main providers of labor for community work (and thus accept this part of customary law and tradition), but that they do object to “its management solely by chiefs” (2010:18), instead demanding more decision-making power in this issues.

Drug Abuse

A final point brought up is the issue of drug abuse. Before the war, the commonest drugs were marijuana (mainly called diamba or ganja), palm wine (poyo), and spirits (sometimes called pega or tota-pack, after the brand that sold these spirits, in small plastic bags). Marijuana was used by mainly young people-and by the laboring class involved in hard physical labor, such as fishermen (Akyeampong 2005:432)-while palm wine and strong spirits were consumed by young and older people. No statistics are available, but the prewar use of hard drugs seems to have been limited and localized (Bøås and Hatløy 2005).

The war brought in new drugs. Commanders from all sides, with the possible exception of the Civil Defence Forces (a pro-SLPP civilian militia, based on bush animal-hunting guilds), were quick to find out that giving their soldiers, including child soldiers, certain drugs made them braver in battle (or at least less aware of the dangers) and more resilient on the front. Drugs such as crack cocaine, amphetamines, and allegedly gunpowder were introduced, and became the so-called “morale boosters” for combatants. These drugs were smuggled from neighboring countries (Ellis 1999), looted from hospitals during raids, or, in the case of gunpowder, taken from bullets. Some of the worst atrocities in the conflict may have been committed by combatants under the influence of these drugs (Human Rights Watch 1999).

In 2001, the debaters had just experienced a decade of war in which drug use by combatants was common, though probably not so common as suggested in the media; nevertheless, they do not directly point to the war as the main reason for drug abuse during those days.

Augustine: The drug abuse of the youth is mutilating the brains and has a bad impact on the youth in general. Many of the youth today are stopping with one of the many development programs on formal and nonformal education as a result of their drug addiction. The elders are working relentlessly to make sure that the youth of today become good leaders of tomorrow, but because of the drug addiction of the youth, this will not happen.

Boikai: Drug abuse is another reason for the downfall of the youth, but who is responsible for that? Let’s imagine that I am meeting my father eating rice. I will join him in eating that rice. What I am saying [is] that we met our elders and leaders in the habit of abusing drugs. Obviously, I will imitate them by starting to use drugs, too, because that is what I saw them doing when I met them.

In one of the first studies of alcohol and drug use in postwar Sierra Leone, Bøås and Hatløy found that the (ab)use of drugs was mainly limited to Freetown and the diamond-mining areas, though they found a large percentage of ex-combatants being involved in drug use, particularly those belonging to the RUF and the AFRC and the West Side Boys, a splinter faction of the AFRC:

Heavy drinking and the use of drugs may be a relatively marginal phenomenon in Sierra Leone[,] but, as we have seen, there is also some polarisation in the sense that some people drink a lot and use quite a lot of drugs. Those that do are, for most part, relatively young people[,] that either live in a more cosmopolitan urban setting (e.g. Freetown) or [live] in a rural setting where non-agriculture income opportunities are available (e.g.[,] the diamond areas). Both these areas have experienced high levels of migration and mobility, cutting people off from the bonds of traditional society. (2005:54)

These days, drug trafficking, rather than drug consumption, has become the real danger for Sierra Leone (see also Koroma’s Agenda For Change, cited above). Before, Sierra Leone was targeted, mainly by Nigerian drug cartels, as a small consumer market, but there is now growing evidence that the whole of the West African coastal region is used as a drug-trafficking zone to smuggle drugs from central and southeast Asia and Latin America to Europe and North America (UNODC 2007). In July 2008, a record seizure of 600 kilograms of cocaine-with a street value of US$200 million-was discovered on a plane at the country’s international airport. Among the people arrested was Mohamed Sesay, the brother of Transport and Aviation Minister Kemoh Sesay, who was later relieved of his duties by the president (Peters 2009:173). Guinea-Bissau has already been labeled a narco-state, and national and international efforts to fight the drug trade are increasing year after year (Kohl 2009:114). The effect that drug money has on the national economy of Sierra Leone and its security situation can become significant, as it can increase black-market trade and corruption, and it can lead to drug wars for control over prime transit locations, in addition to a likely greater availability of drugs on the local market.

Discussion: Youth Emancipation in Sierra Leone

Above, we have heard from young people discussing and debating what they perceive as their major problems, and whom they hold responsible for these. It is of little surprise that living in one of the poorest countries on earth and recovering from a decade-long civil conflict have made education and employment the foremost worries of youth. A third major worry, that of politics and the destabilizing and devastating effects that bad governance can have, has been experienced by most of the young debaters themselves, and it is therefore ranked high on their problem list. Moreover, expectations for what would turn out to be the first fair, democratic, and peacetime election in decades moved the issue further to the center of their attention. Interestingly, in the discussion of politics, the focus was not only on the need for good governance, but also on representation: how could old politicians represent an increasingly young and youthful population? This suggests a generational conflict-an interpretation further supported by other problems brought forward, such as “money and materialism” and “disobedience.” Additionally, debaters brought the focus of attention from the national to the local and personal level. This is in line with the interpretations of many of the young ex-combatants: the war and the participation of large numbers of young people in it were caused not only by macro factors, such as “bad (national) governance,” “devastating macro-economic policies,” and an oppressive authoritarian regime, but equally by a marginalization and exploitation of young people at local levels by elders, where customary respect for, and obedience to, elders by young people was abused for self-serving purposes-that is, as a tool in the hands of the elders for the exploitation and marginalization of young people.

The decade-long conflict catalyzed an already ongoing process of youth emancipation. Traditional values and institutions were sometimes directly targeted by the young combatants, and while the postwar government, backed up by the international donor community, preferred to reinstall the old prewar local institutions (Archibald and Richards 2002), it is now clear that the clock cannot be turned back completely. Mobility-alas, a forced one-was high during the war, and people moved all over the country, in many cases crossing borders and seeing places and practices they were not familiar with. An influx of peacekeepers and humanitarian workers added to the people’s exposure to other values and practices, including those founded on human-rights frameworks (Boersh-Supan 2010).

Not everybody abandoned the countryside, however: some people stayed in their villages, hoping the war might pass without affecting them much, or they found ways to cooperate with the faction in control; others returned as soon as an area was relatively safe, reclaiming and rehabilitating their villages, acting as vanguards, so to speak. After the war, the younger generation-both men and women-returned to their devastated villages often well before the more-established members of the village did. As a result, those who were among the first to return-or never left in the first place-now challenge the privileges of the chiefs and elites. For instance, during a village consultation meeting, some women and young men jumped up in protest when the village chief tried to set the agenda and silence them (Archibald and Richards 2002:446). Subordinates, like the women and young men referred to above, would not have been allowed to speak before the war, but they now argued that it was their turn to speak out because they had stayed behind while the chief had gone to a safe place-Freetown, or even abroad.

A considerable number of people, particularly young people, took a role in defending their villages. Organized on a local level, their defense militias were later transformed into the nationwide Civil Defence Force. The CDF units fought in different parts of the country and increasingly moved on their own initiative, no longer under the control of local chiefs. Because they became so popular among the civilians and “were living among them,” as they put it, they sometimes became a threat to the chiefs’ authority. In any case, chiefs had already suffered from the war, as they were likely targets for disgruntled villagers who had joined the fighting forces. Many chiefdoms and villages are currently-that is, in the immediate postwar period-in the process of electing new chiefs. Exact statistics are not available, but it seems that the average age of chiefs is dropping. Many of the prewar chiefs were killed during the war or ran away. The situation was summarized by a young chief in Liberia (close to the border with Sierra Leone), interviewed in 2000:

We, the young people in this village, were the ones who defended this place, and that is why they made me chief. And presently being a chief is dangerous, with all these security forces around. An old chief will find it difficult to survive if he is beaten up by these forces. And some of the older chiefs cannot speak English, and that is important whenever NGOs come around.

According to many ordinary Sierra Leoneans, if there is one positive effect of the war in Sierra Leone, it is that “our eyes are open now” and “nobody can fool us anymore.” They realize that corruption, nepotism, the socioeconomic exclusion of youths, and the marginalization of ordinary people in general, are causes that led to the war. People see the need for change. Youths who grew up during the war were already aware of their social marginalization, but they have become aware of their own agency vis à vis elders and NGOs. Discussions about how the future should be shaped are taking place every day; people analyze what went wrong and who was or is responsible. Half or more of Africa’s population is below the age of eighteen. Warlords have already discovered the huge potential of youth, though in these cases it was used in a negative and destructive way. One visitor of the Drop-in Centre, a young ex-combatant, stated: “The storm is not yet over.” By this, he was referring not only to his willingness to take up arms again if his situation did not improve, but also to the fact that the same causes that had made him join the army in the first place-the inability to complete his education and the lack of encouragement or support-are still present in postwar Sierra Leone.

The 2001 Kenema youth debate presented above is a window into a larger debate, which moved to center stage during the first decade after the war: the debate on the “crisis of youth.” It shows that Sierra Leonean young people have both the capacity and the will to reflect on their own situations and to look at their problems from different perspectives. McIntyre (2006) has argued that young people became stakeholders in the war, and they should be recognized as stakeholders in the postwar reconstruction and peace. To promote peaceful and sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa, there is a need to focus on young people-not only on the rather dramatic category of youthful combatants or the easy accessible urban youth, but equally on ordinary youth living in provincial towns or rural settings.