By: Gabriel Benjamin
Finding a decent job, achieving financial independence, and enjoying a good life are fast eluding many young people. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Youth have constituted the most significant sub-category of growth in the Sierra Leonean demographics since independence. They have consistently accounted for over 45% of the entire population, which points to one of the largest youth bulges in the world.
Demography on the rise
The Government of Sierra Leone defines youth as those between ages 15 and 35. Approximately 2.5 million of Sierra Leone’s 8 million population (set to increase to 4.1 million by 2050), are youths.
The projected increase represents an opportunity to enhance the youth’s potential to help Sierra Leone achieve Middle Income Status by 2030.
For this to occur, however, there has to be an increase in the number of youths engaged in growing the country’s gross domestic product through various economic activities. The International Labour Organisation notes that youth unemployment stood at 9.2% and 9.1 in 2016 and 2017 respectively. It declined to 8.9% in 2018 and 8.8% in 2019. Meaning that progress is being made.
Sadly, less than 50% of the country’s labour force participation is youth. This demographic bulge is not at the moment yielding any demographic dividends.
Civil war as a tipping point
A major impediment to youth progress in Sierra Leone was the civil war that lasted for 11 years and left an estimated 700,000 children and youth displaced, 9,000 maimed, orphaned or separated from their parents. A good number of them were combatants who currently live in and make a living on the streets of Freetown, having been forced to flee their communities and other major cities like Bo and Kenema.
They are largely illiterate school dropouts eking a living from petty trading, narcotic drug peddling, prostitution and theft. There is a causal link between the desire for a daily fix and the proliferation of petty crimes and theft. These social vices are a ticking time bomb.
In addition, the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS, is on the rise. According to the Global Aid Monitoring Report of 2020, about 1.7% of persons ages 15-49 are currently living with HIV/AIDS. There is no doubt that the impact of these diseases affects young people’s ability to live normal lives and their productivity.
Resilience and response
Although faced with myriad challenges, the resilience of the youths and contribution to nation building has been impressive. They are changing the narratives by using their skills to coordinate a sophisticated socio-economic rebirth with positive outcomes.
For example, Jeremiah Thoronka won the $100,000 Chegg.org Global Student Prize for 2021, while Fatima Sesay won the 2021 prestigious Concord Times Award as the Entrepreneur of the Year.
Similarly, Frances Jah won the 2021 “Best Actress of the Year” at the Ghana Youth Empowerment Awards.
In 2017, both Kumba Musa and Salton Massally were among 60 young people from around the Commonwealth who were recognised as exceptional leaders in their community by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth in London.
Also, Chernor Bah in 2014 received ‘The Voice of Courage Award’ from the Women’s Refugee Commission in New York.
While successive Sierra Leonean governments have recognised the potentials that the country’s huge youth population has played in its post-conflict, post-Ebola and post-Covid-19 reconstruction and development process, the formation of the National Youth Commission enhances youth representation in all spheres of government and society. But it also tacitly acknowledges the second-fiddle role of the youth in national development.
For example, in June 2003, the late president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah during the National Youth Policy launch pledged his government’s commitment to enhancing the interests of the youths.
Similarly, former president Ernest Bai Koroma in April 2014 launched “A Blue Print for Youth Development,” noting that “many youths are too unskilled to seize the growing job opportunities.” He promised that his government would face the challenges by establishing youth-friendly agencies.
Also, in June 2021, the president Julius Maada Bio-led government launched the Revised National Youth Policy. Represented by Vice President Dr. Mohamed Juldeh Jalloh, Mr. Bio affirmed his New Direction government’s commitment to supporting youth empowerment to stimulate the economy.
The discontent among the youth is already simmering giving the economic crisis sparked by the rise in global oil prices caused by the Russian-Ukraine war and compounded by the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic.
We cannot afford to wait for another five years for the launch of the next youth policy. We need to move beyond the short-term approach that has dominated previous responses.
As a matter of urgency, the government should provide a mechanism for reviewing its investments in the country’s most precious resource— the youth— and create an opportunity for a sustained engagement that will tackle their unique challenges.
Finally, as we celebrate 61 years of independence, we must prioritise youth empowerment so that they can become healthy, productive and flourishing adults in society. The nation’s future depends on them.