Ibrahim Fanday, Chairman of Kono Youth Commission smiled proudly as he says ‘Kono is known as a trouble hot-spot – but at the end of the day, the elections were peaceful.’ Martha Lewis, a member of the local women’s network, agreed, saying ‘Hot spot? Cold spot!’
When Sierra Leone went to the polls in November last year, it followed months of speculation and fears that the hotly contested elections would be a flash-point for violence. And Kono, the state which saw the worst of the ten year civil war, and remains notorious chiefly for its diamond miles and its instability, was predicted to be at the centre of any trouble.
The elections passed without major disturbances and were pronounced free and fair by the EU observers following them. Ibrahim believes that the youth of Kono played a role in keeping the polling peaceful, by acting as ‘peace ambassadors’ in their communities. His pride is echoed by everyone I speak to - Sierra Leone seems to have passed some kind of test, in both national and international eyes, by holding an election where 87.3% of the population turned out to vote, and the peace held.
Yet a few weeks after I left Kono, a strike over poor working conditions and insecurity in the mines led to two protesters being killed, after police attempted to disperse the crowds using live ammunition.
This unrest expresses the desperation of young people in Kono, a district at the sharp end of many of the challenges facing Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, with an estimated 70% of young people out of work.
Despite the mining for both diamonds and coltan, very little of the wealth discovered in the earth makes its way into the hands of the local population. Those lucky enough to find jobs at the mining company will only receive casual contracts, liable to be terminated at any point without notice, often following humiliating medical examinations, which the company uses as a pretext to end their employment.
Both mining and youth unemployment is a highly visible and politically charged issue and young people are restless and dissatisfied with a highly conservative political establishment, which seems to do little to address their needs. As one ex-combatant, now a youth leader, said, ‘patience will only last so long.’
It is not easy to see a way forward, in a political culture hampered by corruption and patrimonialism (Transparency International ranks Sierra Leone at 123 out of 174 countries in its 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index). However, the youth groups are well-organised, and supported by local NGO, Democracy Sierra Leone, are working with other civil society groups to hold forums with local chiefs and MPs. A recent breakthrough came following a dialogue with 14 chiefs, where the chiefs agreed to support a basket fund, with contributions from the major and artisanal mining companies, in order to fund skills training for youth. The basket fund has yet to become a reality, but the youth groups now have a focus for their efforts and a politically important promise from chiefs to help them fulfill them. You can watch the leader of the Kono Youth Commission, Ibhrahim Fanday, talks about his work with DSL and his hopes for the basket fund here.
Despite the overwhelming challenges facing the young people of Sierra Leone, there is a sense of optimism and unity – embodied by the rejoicing that met the peaceful elections – and, in general, a rejection of violence. Facing down the task of relieving poverty and managing sustainably and equitably its natural resources, Sierra Leone will need to listen to voices of all its citizens. The Mwananchi Programme is working with the Campaign for Good Governance and other local civil society organisations to help support this process.
Photo Credit: Mwananchi-Africa