Liberian Youth and the New Declaration of Independence: An Agenda for Action
(The Keynote Address by Dr. Al-Hassan Conteh at a one-day Youth Workshop held at the Francis Myers Recreation Center by the Association of Liberian Youth of the state of Pennsylvania on Nov 2, 2002)
November 7, 2002
The Point of My Address
The main point of my address is that because life has become unsustainable in Liberia today, Liberian youth associations urgently ought to embark on a national and international agenda of democratic renewal in Liberia that would complement current and ongoing national capacities for social and political change. In embarking on this agenda, they should ensure the commitment of the Government of Liberia, the international community (ECOWAS, AU, EU) led by the United States, and the private sector for the attainment of sustainable human development in Liberia. My humble task is to highlight the grim realities in today's Liberia by sharing with you some data through the voices of youths I worked with and observed in action between 1995 and 2000 in Liberia when I served as Professor of demography at the University of Liberia. In this context, I will outline an agenda for action for democratic renewal and good governance for the achievement of sustainable livelihood in Liberia
Reflection on Liberian Youth
Youths are defined in Liberia for planning purposes as persons in the age group 15 to 24 years. They constitute about 20 percent of Liberia’s projected post-war population. About 7 percent of the
pre-war youth population formed the core of fighters in Liberia's 1989-1997 civil war. The rest were either displaced internally in Liberia or were refugees abroad, many of whom have remained in refugee camps because of fear of their safety if they returned. This is not surprising giving the atrocities which many witnessed during the war. Some recent studies have reported that young women, particularly, faced sexual abuse problems at the refugee camps at a time when the risk of the spread of HIV-AIDS was very high. The United Nations and other concerned organizations have investigated this problem and are now cognizant of the needs of young women’s problems and have included these in their monitoring work.
Only a small proportion of youths lived a settled community life in Monrovia throughout the war. Nevertheless, they constituted a vibrant part of the labor force, including university and high school students, who are considered the agents of social change. Unfortunately, majority of them have been marginalized by the war. For example, many were victims of atrocities and torture who have manifested symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the war and high unemployment.
Liberia's Ministry of Planning puts the postwar unemployment rate as 80 percent of the potential labor force. And many of the postwar unemployed are young people in the aforementioned age groups, who must depend on extended families, Liberia's extensive political patronage, international agencies, NGOs and CBOs for employment and other reconstruction activities. Traditionally, the Government of Liberia has been the largest employer of youths. But in view of the tight, post-war public sector labor market, to say the least, there has been a proliferation of many NGOs working on every issue imaginable to confront Liberia's manifold postwar problems. To make up for the lack of resources, some youths work for these NGOs as a means of acquiring useful skills, which they put to work to buttress their management capabilities to survive and operate effectively.
Effective youth associations, including the University of Liberia Student Union (ULSU), the Liberian National Student Union (LINSU) and the Federation of Liberian Youth have been advocating for revolutionary change through students' sensitization and mobilization since the early seventies. Past strategies included the publication of vocal newspapers including the University Spokesman and the Revelation. The former was campus-based, but debated critical national issues of inequality and lack of access to opportunities that prompted Liberia's civil crisis. The latter was national in scope and was critical of the government's proposal to legalize gambling and its Liberianization policies. Several student and youth leaders belonging to these organizations went to jail for their revolutionary activities, which served as a catalyst of Liberia's coup d'etat of 1980 and its civil war of 1989-1997. Their successors have now seized the opportunity to affect postwar change by voicing their visions for a new Liberia. In my study of this issue, let me share with you four visions for rebuilding Liberia, which my senior students of Demography 404 (Project Work at the University of Liberia) reported in their interviews with Youth leaders in 1998.
Case #1:Christian Baker was president of the University of Liberia Student Union in 1995-96. Baker sees youths contributions as four-fold. First, acquiring adequate vocation, technical and other education to meet the challenges of their growing population. Second, they should assist in rural and urban redevelopment by participating in various "grass roots" projects. Third, to serve as agents of change in exposing problems confronting internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees and advocate for the provision of their basic needs and help foster sincere national reconciliation and peace; fourth, participate in comprehensive research that would serve as a guide to reducing adolescent fertility, illiteracy, mortality, rural-urban migration and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV-AIDS. Baker feels that postwar Liberian youths have special needs in education, health, employment, gender equality and basic human right. "Youths are actively participating in sustaining economic growth, rural and urban development. Many are now in school, undergoing appropriate programs designed to meet their needs in education, health, employment, gender equality and basic human rights. Youth's responsibilities today are to help maintain the peace, suppress vice and preserve a high standard of morality, provide employment for the reconstruction of public utilities and work to conserve natural resources."
Case #2: Sam Hare was the President of the Federation of Liberian Youth (FLY) in 1999, an umbrella youth association. FLY coordinated over 100 youth population in communities throughout Liberia into active service corps who cooperated with international agencies and NGOs in development areas. For example, FLY members were recruited by the United Nations Humanitarian Coordination Agency (UNHACO) to distribute water and sanitation kits in the many displaced centers in the environs of Monrovia, created by the civil war. They also helped build latrines for war victims. He thinks that youths are in the vanguard of socio-economic and development programs. FLY has been addressing reconciliation in Liberian communities. His organization has been organizing and coordinating Liberian youths as "active service corps," who cooperate with other agencies and youth groups to help communities reconcile and provide their basic needs.
Case #3: Jefferson Karmoh was the Secretary General of the Liberian National Student Union (LINSU). He was LINSU's delegation head to the National Conference in 1997. All Liberian students are LINSU members who, historically have helped spread democracy in local communities. It currently serves as a uniting force of all students and student institutions for the encouragement of friendship, mutual understanding and cooperation. LINSU's postwar community concerns are in national reconciliation and integration, decentralization of youth development programs and the establishment of academic and vocational training institutions to meet the growing demand among youths.
Case #4: Augustine Kphehe Ngafuan was president the University of Liberia Student Union (ULSU) in 1998/1999. He headed the ULSU delegation to the national conference. The main focus of his organization is to seek academic freedom, social justice and peace and to represent the wishes and aspirations of over 8,000 university students. About one-third of this student group was former combatants in Liberia's 1989-1997 civil war. ULSU organized trauma-healing classes to help them adapt to the post war college environment. The extent to which these programs were successful could be measured by the lack of unrest since the University resumed operations in 1992 under very difficult circumstances. Perhaps, the most successful of ULSU's programs were organizing democratic elections among three main campus-based parties. The elections are carefully viewed by the greater society as promoting a culture of peace among future Liberian leaders. Ngafuan spoke at the National Conference about youth security, reconciliation among youth and the rehabilitation of academic and vocational institutions.
Although Liberia-based youth organizations have such laudable ideas, a general lack or resources and government bureaucratic constraints and politics often hamper their implementation. As a consequence, they have been unable on their own to implement effective action oriented community programs. Therefore their views and skills should be harnessed by youth organizations abroad, particularly in the United States through partnerships in relief, skills training and development projects. The challenge is yours to follow through on this call for action in this new struggle for sustainable human development in Liberia.
As we see from the above cases, Liberian youth leaders and their organizations are pivotal this new struggle because they are agents of change and development. They are the central demographic force in Liberia's political momentum affecting the present and future of the nation. And they are central to Liberian aspirations for a democratic and stable society. In reviewing the issue of the centrality of Liberian youth with a friend mine, he recalled two plaques on the walls of the historic Liberia College and the College of West Africa epitomizing these sentiments. The first read: "The peril of Liberian democracy lies in the illiteracy of Liberian youth." The second one read: "Though thousands will fall, Liberia should never be forgotten." These sayings must be adopted in your manifestos for action with an ever abiding commitment that you have only one home where your heart ought to be, and that home being the Republic of Liberia. It is therefore heartwarming that the
Association of Liberian Youth in Pennsylvania (ALYP) has organized this timely workshop with the thoughtful theme: "Charting a New Course for Africa; Liberia, a Case Study."
Although, as I have pointed out, since the seventies, and as matter of fact throughout Liberian history, youth leaders and youth movements been vocal about burning issues affecting national development, sadly, we are witnessing a digressive trend today where mundane, non Liberian interests and values have overshadowed the important role Liberian youths once manifested as agents of change in Liberian society.
Given the depth to which life has sunk in Liberia, it is time to realize that the party is over. Liberia is today a worn-torn society with a post-war population size of 2.6 million and an annual population growth rate of 2.4 percent. 80 percent of Liberians live on $US 1 per day. Adult literacy rate is only 31.2 percent. Gross school enrolment is 58.8 percent. Real Gross Domestic Product per capita (PPP) is $US 225; and life expectancy at birth is now 42.3 years, one of the lowest in the world. The war created nearly a million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and close to a million refugees. About 10 percent of Liberia's prewar population of 2.1 million people died during the country's bitter 1989-1997 civil war. And most of the socioeconomic infrastructure of the country is destroyed.
It is doubtful, in this context, whether if youths abandon their vanguard role that Liberia would be able to attain a fully informed and conscientized national and international integration fabric, which was once the dream of the earlier generations and is still the dream of the current generation of
Liberians. Youths must wake up to these realities and disprove the notion of the "end of history," as Francis Fukiyama propounded about the international system in 1989. In our context, this model would imply the finality of all Liberian ideas of good governance and development except for an ideology based on chaos and violence that we have witnessed for the past two decades.
The New Declaration of Independence
Although Liberia is the oldest republic in Africa, by virtue of its declaration of independence on July 26, 1847, its economic and development lags behind other African countries in a new international system where integration of knowledge, communication and economies have taken the front seats global matters. Despite its 155 year history and considerable historical contribution to African liberation independence, relatively newer nation states, including Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and Mali have taken the mantle that have given rise to the African Union (AU) with a New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).
Quite recently some observers have blamed the Liberian civil wars (1989-97 and 1999 to the present) and the role of the international community for the acceleration of this state of national malaise. But others have counter argued that the complex social-psychological Liberian leadership constraints has caused the lack of a national agenda that can serve as a rallying point for the integration of Liberia in ongoing global and African restructuring, which can integrate critical socio-political and developmental needs of the Liberian people and liberate the Liberian people from their current state of hopelessness.
Given the deplorable state of their homeland, Liberian youths everywhere should rise up from hopelessness and embark on a clear national agenda based on the rich lessons of Liberian history. It is time, therefore, for a new Declaration of Independence, based on the same premise of marginality and hopelessness that twelve hard working patriotic Liberian conventioneers, led by Samuel Benedict and Hilary Teague complained to the World Community in 1847. They courageously announced to the world that their human rights were trampled, that they were denied basic freedoms in the pursuit of life for they and their compatriots, that they could not worship the God of their Fathers according to their consciences, and were forced to completely abandon the land of their nativity in favor of a peaceful one facilitated by the lords of the soil. Their very motivations, fears and aspirations must be fast forwarded a century and fifty five years hence borrowing from that venerable text of historic Declaration of Independence, which for Nigerian President Namdi Azikwe, in his book Liberia in World Politics, praised as a Masterpiece for African liberation, but criticized as a bugaboo of the aboriginal problem. Similar justifications for international complaint now obtain in Liberia today where there is no good food, housing, shelter, electricity, clean water, sustained universal education, human security, human rights and peace; in effect, all of those things that should make Liberians a healthy and vibrant people contributing their fair share in the new global economy. Instead, we see undue idiosyncratic constraints that have been artificially imposed on the freedom loving people in their sweet land of liberty.
The new Declaration of Independence should be driven by, what Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall call "a force more powerful" than any weaponry that human kind has created: the constitutional guarantees to use the power vested in the people for nonviolent sanctions, including effective non cooperation that will separate any brutal Liberian Government from its means of control. The goal must be to bring justice and power together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful must be just (Pascal). In the Liberian context, to quote Gene Sharp, we have witnessed that "Nonviolent action is possible, and is capable of wielding great power even against ruthless rulers and military regimes, because it attacks the most vulnerable characteristic of all hierarchical institutions and governments: dependence on the governed." This secret of non-violent social change should be integrated into current solutions to our national decay if all civilized means of effecting change for the attainment of sustainable human development, as guaranteed by the Liberian constitution fails to materialize.