Youth at Risk – Youth as Risk
On the evening of the 15th February, six leading presidential candidates for the Sierra Leone presidential elections took to the stage. Over three hours of a live broadcasted debate, each answered questions about their plans for the country. Seen by some as a milestone in Sierra Leone’s post-war political development, the following morning the capital Freetown was abuzz with talk about who had acquitted themselves, who had failed to impress, and what – if anything – this might mean for the election result on the 7th March. In the offices of a youth development organisation, staff enthusiastically discussed the event.
In an adjoining room, I met with their colleague Mohamed*, a man with decades of experience working in the city’s poorest informal communities. What did you think of the debate? I asked. Was it a sign that Sierra Leone’s political scene is moving towards serious discussion of policies, or as one report put it, ‘growing up’?
Mohamed smiled. Pointing to his colleagues next door, he replied: ‘Each person there is arguing about why their preferred candidate won the debate. What the candidate actually said, how they performed – it doesn’t matter.’ He went on to make a familiar point; voters put party, tribe and personal loyalties ahead of policies. Whilst certainly not new or unique to Sierra Leone, this he contended, meant such debates had little bearing on the electoral outcome. The promise of some candidates to provide free education, surely a positive development for the country’s youth, was just rhetoric, he concluded. In fact, ‘politicians keep the youth uninformed and uneducated so they can use them to their own advantage.’
In Sierra Leone’s post-conflict era, great stress has been placed on engaging young people, providing solutions to severe unemployment and lack of educational opportunities to ensure the country never again experiences civil war. The idea that it was a ‘youth crisis’ that precipitated conflict dominates academic analysis and was a key conclusion of the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This emphasis has entrenched a peacebuilding discourse that presents youth as both an at risk population – vulnerable to chronic poverty and exploitation of their grievances – as well as a risk – a potential source of violence, instability, or even renewed conflict. In its crudest form, this latter discourse is found in frequent characterisations of ‘idle’ and criminal youth in local media, where their economic hardship and violence is explained not so much by their circumstances as by their ‘bad’ character. Election campaigns, through rhetoric aimed at youth and through violence involving youth, have reinforced both. Mohamed’s scepticism towards political promises, and belief that politicians seek to exploit young people, is born of experience.
Recycled Rhetoric and Remobilisation
Successive elections since 2002 have promised much but delivered little tangible change for many young people. Initial optimism that a new administration might bring transformation, or that political patrons’ offers of jobs in exchange for support would be honoured, has invariably given way to disillusionment and deepened cynicism. A bitter sense of betrayal pervades the stories of those who describe their past enlistment by ‘big men’. The ability to register this frustration at the ballot box is certainly valued – an important and too often overlooked contrast to pre-war Sierra Leone – but it underlines a fundamental problem of the country’s political landscape. Both major parties – the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) – are seen as offering little deviation from politics as usual. The same old familiar faces of the establishment continue to dominate political life. And so, many of Sierra Leone’s youth believe they can change governments, but they cannot make governments change.
Violent clashes of past elections have done much to reinforce the ‘youth as risk’ discourse, reinvigorating tired tropes of idle youth and dangerous ex-combatants. During 2007 elections, fighting between supporters of rival parties took place across the country, leading then SLPP President Tejan Kabbah to declare a state of emergency. Yet these incidents were not simply the boiling-over of pent-up frustration nor the wanton criminality of unemployed youth. In another sign of negative political continuity, parties and political patrons had actively courted – and importantly, been courted by – groups of youth and ex-combatants to act as security ‘taskforces.’ Incentives ranged from gifts of drink and cash to promises of jobs and education. Providing ‘security’ often equated to intimidating political opponents and interrupting rival rallies. In the years following, a small number of senior ex-combatants on the winning APC side had reaped the rewards of this bargain, but most others missed out.
In 2012, the situation was markedly different. In the run up, grave concerns were expressed as incidents of violence between rival party taskforces and youth groups continued to occur across the country. Much analysis warned of turmoil on a par with 2007, if not worse. Yet in the end the re-election of the APC’s President Ernest Bai Koroma was largely peaceful. Of encouragement was the role of civil society, including youth organisations, in actively campaigning against electoral violence. My interviews with ex-combatants also found a pronounced determination among some not to be ‘fooled’ again and drawn to violence on the back of false promises. That said, opportunities for their recruitment were comparatively scarce. The SLPP was wracked by splits and Koroma enjoyed strong support, winning over the 55 percent mark required to avoid a run-off vote. It is that second round that is associated with heightened violence, with the contest close and votes of minor parties up-for-grabs.
2018 Elections and the Gangs of Freetown
In the years since 2012, the same challenges blighting youth mobility in Sierra Leone have not diminished. Official UN figures put youth unemployment and underemployment at 70%. A sense of weariness is detectable among many who held great optimism during Koroma’s first term. Whilst there has been visible infrastructural development, the poorest have felt little benefit. Hopes that mining profits might lead to economic transformation for the benefit of all have dissipated, and the response to the Ebola outbreak of 2014, no small challenge for any government, highlighted endemic problems of corruption and fraud against which Koroma had vowed to fight in 2007.
The vote on March 7th will see Koroma stand-down after serving the maximum two terms. For this reason alone, it will be significantly different to the 2012 ballot. But in a welcome shake-up, two new political parties have entered the fray. Former Vice-President Samuel Sam-Sumana leads the Coalition for Change (C4C). Sumana made international headlines in March 2015 after seeking asylum in the US embassy following a fall-out with Koroma and the APC. He was subsequently sacked, a move which in November 2017 was ruled illegal by the ECOWAS Court of Justice. Sumana’s support-base is in Kono, a key swing district that could prove decisive.
Another new player is the National Grand Coalition (NDC) led by Kandeh Yumkella, a former UN Under-Secretary General. Having split from the SLPP, he remains firmly opposed to the APC and could also take votes from both major parties. The entry of these parties raises the prospect of a much closer contest than the last, and the common view among Sierra Leonean and international observers is that the election will go to a second round.
With the expectation of a run-off vote, fears arise of a repeat of past election violence. But here there is also an important change from previous campaigns. In the immediate post-war years, attention was firmly fixed on ex-combatants and the potentially devastating consequences of their mobilisation. As that generation has grown older, and judging from the last election, moved away from direct engagement in violence, a new generation of young marginal Sierra Leoneans has taken their place in the discourse of dangerous youth: gangs.
Referred to as cliques, gangs and youth street associations have a long history in Sierra Leone. However, police, youth activists, researchers, local communities and gangs themselves agree that they have grown in size and significance in recent years, and are becoming institutionalised.** As mention of ex-combatants and party taskforces wanes in media reporting, discussion of the ‘clique problem’ has increased. In 2015, news of fatal gang-related stabbings and public discussion of crime and violence led the Attorney General and Minister of Justice to describe gang activity in Freetown as ‘domestic terrorism’ , demanding immediate attention by the security sector. That attention saw police offer rewards for information on gang leaders, and in 2017, the Minister of Defence took to the airwaves to advocate his personal view that the solution to rising gang violence was to implement the death penalty. As the elections have drawn closer, general fears over gangs have narrowed to one specific concern: that they may be used by politicians to attack opponents and intimidate voters.
To what extent are the gangs truly a threat in upcoming elections? My research has sought to better understand Sierra Leone’s cliques and their violence, focussing on Freetown though gangs are to be found across much of country. There is not space here for in-depth detail of gang organisation and activity, or the responses to it. Here I wish to briefly explore the specific issue of election violence drawing on recent interviews and time spent with three factions: the red-wearing Bloods or M.O.B. (Members of Blood); the blue-wearing Cent Coast Crips (CCC); and the black-wearing So-So Black. In Freetown, Bloods dominate the west, Crips the centre, and Black the east, though boundaries are fluid and sub-cliques diffuse. Based primarily (but not exclusively) in informal settlements or slums, members are identified by bandanas – locally ‘mufflers’ – in their respective colours. They hang-out in ghettos and street-corners, listening to music, drinking, smoking and dealing marijuana. They range from young teens to those in their mid-thirties. Contrary to some portrayals, they are not significantly connected to ex-combatant networks, and in many neighbourhoods there are no ex-combatants among them. This is unsurprising considering some were born after the war.
When it comes to violence, a main driver is inter-gang disputes – ‘beefs’ over colour. One gang-member I interviewed had recently been released from a year-long prison sentence for stabbing a rival who had ‘provoked’ him by walking into his territory wearing a red muffler. Other larger-scale incidents have taken place during music concerts and football matches where rival groups come face-to-face. Running ‘rampages’ of vandalism and scuffles have accompanied the movement of east side gangs through enemy territory in the west and centre.
Personal disputes, often over women, also lead to vendettas and cycles of revenge. Opportunistic robbery, particularly at night, is a source of income alongside dealing marijuana. The latter is a subsistence game and there does not appear to be substantial conflict over the trade or dealing spots. But the elections, perhaps, offer new opportunities.
In the last couple of years, gang members have described one faction or another as siding with a political party. They recount stories of large payments being paid to gangs by intermediaries of parties, with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) expectation they would in turn give their support and cause ‘trouble’ for their opponents. Individual political patrons are alleged to have used gifts of alcohol, cash and job opportunities – the old familiar promises offered to ex-combatants in the past – to bring them to their side. Substantiating these claims remains difficult, but they are stories repeated across Freetown and regularly hinted at in news articles. They came to the fore on 26th January in the middle of the city, during a rally linked to the nomination ceremony of the ruling APC party. Fights broke out between youth wielding machetes and knives, and at least one individual was fatally stabbed. Pro-SLPP and APC outlets accused each other of being behind the violence, before police announced that the perpetrators were in fact gang members.
Fifty-five gangsters were subsequently arrested, including an individual who had previously been described in interviews as an intermediary between the government and cliques. In discussing the incident, members of various factions told a similar story, though again it could not be substantiated. The intermediary, they claimed, acted as a go-between with the government to tackle gang violence, often dispersing large amounts of money to gang leaders from the safety of a central police station. Several gangsters expressed the view that in reality, these were political payments to secure support, rather than investments in peace. On the specific occasion of the rally, they claimed, one clique suspected this individual of withholding funds for himself and began remonstrating. The dispute escalated to violence when another gang came to his defence, leading to the killing. Following the arrests, a Freetown judge sentenced the fifty-five to either three months imprisonment or payment of a Le1000,000 fine (roughly $130USD). Rumours quickly circulated that the fine was paid, and according to one confidential informant, that the money came from the ruling party.
The details of the above incident remain disputed and unverified. Beyond the usual challenge of rumour substantiating for fact, in the charged political environment of the election campaign there are clear reasons for parties to implicate each other in abuses. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that some gang members are seeking to profit as hired muscle, and political patrons have likewise courted them to this end. These stories mirror the mobilisation of ex-combatants and youth in past elections. Now, it seems, a new generation is becoming part of this old problem. Solo, a gang captain in his early twenties, commented:
‘At this election time we see them [the politicians]. After this time, we won’t see them. When they need us, they are our friends. They come with rum, cider, they offer small money. They want us to vote for them, go to the rally, to fight their rivals. All the parties come to us.’
This returns us to the opening concern. Has Sierra Leone’s political system, and specifically its relationship with marginalised youth, changed significantly? From the perspective of gang members, it has not. Elections still represent to some a brief window of opportunity for personal advancement, but at the risk of committing violence that only deepens fears of dangerous youth and perpetuates a political relationship built on mutual exploitation and distrust. Sierra Leone’s past shows that violence in such a context may become not simply a mercenary act, but expressive rebellion and defiance against those who seek to prosper from it. Whilst so much focus has been given by peacebuilders to the DDR generation and the supposed dangers of unemployed ex-combatants, a younger generation born after the war faces the same hardships of chronic poverty, limited educational opportunities, and a destructive relationship with political leaders. The feared growing ‘gang problem’ in Freetown and across Sierra Leone cannot be understood or addressed in isolation from these hardships.
To end on a positive note, anti-violence campaigning from civil society groups and the determination of Sierra Leoneans to maintain peace remains unwavering. Despite popular concerns, to date gangs do not appear to have been mobilised to the same extent as taskforces and youth groups in the past. This offers hope that elections will pass peacefully, though few will be surprised if they do not. Whoever emerges victorious, they will have an opportunity to inject renewed energy into tackling the root causes of youth marginalisation. This is an endeavour that by definition must be sustained long after the campaign posters have been taken down. It is a matter first and foremost not of a youth crisis, nor even a gang problem. It is about changing the very practice of politics and governing itself. A major but critical challenge that begins at the very top.
*Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
** For this observation and insights into the nationwide activity of gangs I am grateful to Professor Ibrahim Abdullah.
Dr. Kieran Mitton is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is developing a comparative research project – Youth at Risk/Youth as Risk: Global Responses to Urban Violence – that examines gang dynamics and interventions in Cape Town, Freetown, London, and Rio de Janeiro. He is the author of Rebels in a Rotten State: Understanding Atrocity in the Sierra Leonean Civil War and is on Twitter @kieranmitton