Participation & Governance

A History of Youth Development and Political Participation in Rural Sierra Leone

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Since the rise of the All People’s Congress in Sierra Leone in 1968, the political climate has been one of limited opportunities and involvement for young people. The centralized government system, established an increasingly authoritarian government…The effect of this centralization of power effectively negated several years of economic growth, which severely hampered young peoples’ ability to find educational and employment opportunities.

Since the rise of the All People’s Congress (APC) in Sierra Leone in 1968, the political climate has been one of limited opportunities and limited democratic involvement for young people. The centralized government system, of then President Sir Siaka Stevens, established an increasingly authoritarian government. President Stevens’ de-legitimisation and dismantling of the security apparatus within Sierra Leone further centralized his power. The effect of this centralization of power effectively negated several years of positive economic growth, which severely hampered young peoples ability to find educational and employment opportunities. In the midst of this democratic and economic crisis, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) burst onto the political scene to challenge the rule of President Stevens. Fueled by populist thinking of Libyan and Liberian leaders Muammar Gaddafi and Charles Taylor, RUF leader Foday Sankoh began his coup d’état in 1991. The ensuing civil war dragged youth into both sides of the conflict. As Zack-Williams (2001) and Williamson (2006) state, youth were “loose molecules” looking for chances to voice their political opinions through being “perpetrators” of violence. This political violence was encouraged by the RUF as it was seen as youth being able to finally display the power of their voice to effect change within Sierra Leone.

At the rural level, the RUF gained support through established tribunals to put on trial corrupt and authoritarian chiefs supported by the Stevens regime. The RUF system of justice was said to be “more fair and effective than the patronage systems of the corrupt chieftaincies” (Solomon and Ginifer, 2008, 3). Young people at the rural level struggled to find political voice in the Stevens regime and instead resorted to violence during the civil war to voice their frustration at their lack of involvement in the direction of the country. Before the war, rural chiefs were said to use violence on youth to get them to adhere to policies and laws enacted by the government. During the war, this only encouraged them to seek out alternative means of democratic involvement, namely violence.

In the beginning of 1991, the RUF and Foday Sankoh were allied to the then President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, who used his troops to support the RUF in their opening stages. Rural communities at once became confused as to who was attacking them. The Liberian troops were known to be exponentially more violent against the native Sierra Leonean population in return for Charles Taylor and Siaka Stevens’ strained relationship. This confusion led many rural Sierra Leoneans to believe the RUF and murderous Liberian troops were one in the same. Thus, the war also exponentially affected how youth view and participate in rural politics.

Since the end of the war and signing of the Lome Peace Agreement in 2002, the government of Sierra Leone began establishing decentralized forms of governance, along with a restructuring of the chieftaincy system to ensure greater youth participation. With the All People’s Congress (APC) back in power following the first free, fair, and open elections in 2007, their manifesto speaks of the need for greater youth involvement in all forms and hierarchies of governance. Speaking to several members of parliament in July 2012, they made explicit mention of the need to include youth in decision-making so as to be accountable to them and ensure that conflict does not return.

Youth are realising the power of different avenues of democratic participation, namely, active engagement with youth clubs and public political rallies. This engagement has strengthened their power at the decision-making table in rural polities, although, not significantly. The creation of youth clubs or farming clubs in rural communities is the best opportunity youth have to display the power of their collective voice to community politicians, elders, and the chief. Throughout the study I found that these groups gave youth forums to voice their political opinions openly, honestly, and without fear of reprisal. This avenue for political mobilisation and participation is increasingly youth awareness of local policies that affect them and also give them a collective voice to challenge them. For example, in Tawuya, Kambia, several youth made mention of a series of events that give them great hope for the future of their political might. In this instance the local chief and elders created a law that forbid youth to organise events, such as, dances or plays. When the youth heard about the enactment of this law they came together in their youth club, discussed the law, and decided that they did not agree with it. Several of the older youth came to the chief and elders and told them that all the youth had decided they did not agree with the law and were going to halt all village work (i.e. road repair, farming, house work) until the law was repealed. Several meetings and discussions later the chief and elders repealed the law. This type of collective political power from youth is redefining the socio-political relationships in rural Sierra Leone.

Not only are youth engaging in new forms of democratic political participation but they are also creating and sustaining “invited” spaces of participation, to borrow Cornwall’s (2002) term. Youth engagement with youth and farming clubs also correlate to spaces for this participation. In general, formal spaces for community level politics occur in a community centre, chiefs house, or member of community associated to a political party. The informal spaces that youth engage with and maintain fall far outside of these formal spaces, located far from the locus of community level control. This has to do with youth saying they do not want the chief or elders hearing what they discuss. The fact that youth resort to spaces and places outside the formal political scene is disconcerting for it means they do not feel they have an equal say in formal political life. But, the invention and maintenance of these spaces and places does point toward young people’s wish to be more involved in their community’s political life.

A point for future research could be the role of technology, youth, and political participation and mobilisation. In my study, I found that most youth had or knew someone that owned and used a cell phone. When asked whether they used their mobiles to discuss politics or mobilise public rallies, most youth said they did not but a few said they did in fact use their mobiles in that way. If they did not use their mobiles to discuss politics or did not have access to a mobile then radio programming, which has a long history in Sierra Leone, could be another method used to encourage more youth to get involved in rural politics. A mobile phone system could be set up to send and receive texts from youth about policies that affect them, a chance to voice opinions, and a forum to air grievances. Also, a radio programme could be set up to discuss, debate, and encourage youth political participation. In Tawuya there is such a radio station called the “Children’s Forum Network”, which gives youth an outlet to voice their political opinions while also developing radio programmes to give youth information regarding politics in the district and region. Future research could examine the linkage between youth, technology, and politics more clearly to define what particular role technology plays in the increasing democratic system of Sierra Leone.

In conclusion, youth in rural Sierra Leone are appearing to show greater awareness of their political rights and power at the decision-making table of rural polities. Through youth and farming clubs, youth are showing that collective action is their greatest chance to demonstrate their democratic voice to local chiefs and elders. These informal spaces where youth and farming clubs meet can and should begin to translate into greater power in formal community political spaces. Youth in rural Sierra Leone are incredibly resilient given the past civil war and the damage that it caused to their motivations and aspirations for the future. The national Sierra Leonean government should continue working on developing their decentralised governmental networks with the inclusion of youth to bolster and keep accountable those systems.

Barrett Alexander


This blog post is in reference to field research conducted in two northern districts (Kambia and Port Loko) in Sierra Leone during June-July 2012. I must thank Restless Development for their assistance and coordination on this piece. I interviewed 27 youth, 3 village chiefs, and 4 parliamentarians to gain insight on youth political participation.

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