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Mano River youth: from warriors to peace builders; For the first time since the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire began, the youth of the region are being mobilised to play an effective role in peace building and development. Baffour Ankomah reports from Conakry, Guinea, on the programme sponsored by the Mano River Union (MRU), Ecowas and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

"Let us be clear. Half-educated youth with no prospect of being integrated into a better future is a prescription for disaster. If young people do not have a stake in the existing social and political order, if they do not feel that there is a way forward for them, why should they sacrifice today for a better tomorrow? Why should they have an interest in protecting the stability and social safety of that system?", Dr Ismail Serageldin, vice-president of the World Bank in 1999 said at a youth forum organised that year.

These words--quoted to great effect by Musa Salah, a consultant for the UNECA's Youth for Leadership Programme, at another youth forum in the Guinean capital, Conakry (10-12 January 2005)--have become the raison d'etre of an ambitious project to empower the youth in the conflict-ridden countries of West Africa.

The forum, held under the broad theme, Integrating Youth in Peace and Development Initiatives in the Mano River Basin Countries and Cote d'Ivoire, is a joint regional initiative by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), the Mano River Union (consisting of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea), and UNDP Africa through its Regional Programme to Strengthen Capacities for Peace Building.

A delegation of 48 youths (12 each from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire) attended the forum. They were invited to concretise plans that had been formulated over the past year via two previous youth conferences held to galvanise support for the youth to confront the crises in their countries. The Conakry forum, the third in the series, followed extensive consultations by the MRU, Ecowas and UNDP Africa, with a sample of youth leaders in the four countries.

The consultations revealed a simmering bitterness among the youth, one of whom, from Liberia, commented: "In the ongoing peace process, we are not asked nor heard; yet we are supposed to be the future."

This comment, according to Dr Sam G. Amoo, director of the UNDP programme "cannot be challenged".

"In most peace processes," said Dr Amoo who gave the keynote speech at the opening of the Conakry forum, "the voice of the young is normally neglected, negotiations are held over their heads, they are relegated to the margins of the reconciliation processes; and their needs are often not taken into account in the reconstruction of the economy and society. As a result, post-conflict periods tend to be highly unsatisfactory for the youth, pushing many of them into criminality and all of them into insecurity."

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Speaking on behalf of Abdoulie Janneh, head of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, Dr Amoo contrasted his own "happy" youth spent in the tranquillity of West Africa of the early 1950s with the hopelessness facing the youth in the sub-region today.

"For someone who grew up as a very hopeful youth in the West Africa region," Dr Amoo began, "it would only be appropriate and indeed human to start on a personal note. Please allow me to reminisce.

"Liberia was the place our aunties used to travel to, to buy goods for their market stalls in the town of Tarkwa, Ghana, my hometown. While many of our classmates' families had migrated to Liberia as fishing families, the workforce at Takoradi harbour [also in Ghana] were mostly Krus from Liberia.

"Mrs Cole, the redoubtable headmistress of the prestigious Catholic Girls School at Tarkwa, was from Freetown, Sierra Leone. She had a group of friends who were always in European dress and hats at church, and they all spoke English, unlike our aunties. Freetown must be brimming with educated ladies and gentlemen, we concluded. If one needed any further proof, we could look at Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah's first cabinet--three were graduates from Fourah Bay College in Freetown."

Dr Amoo continued: "Part of my family was in Cote d'Ivoire. Occasionally, our cousins would visit from Abidjan. Communication was no problem--Nzima or Akan was the common medium. Abidjan, our cousins swore, was the most beautiful place on earth. Of course it must be true, given the exotic presents they brought us.

"Guinea, of course, was special. It was one of two diplomatic missions (Mali being the other) that did not have an ambassador in Ghana; it had a resident minister. This was because Ghana, Guinea and Mali belonged to a Union, the precursor of the OAU. Dramani Toure, who was born in my hometown but whose family was Guinean, was very proud of this official affirmation of the linkage. Dramani eventually attained the high position of the judicial secretary of Ghana.

"Come to think of it the youth I remember from my age group almost all attained similar high positions; and this was the case whether they were from Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone or Cote d'Ivoire. Many, like Dramani, attained high positions in Ghana, including service in the Armed Forces.

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"It is thus even more noteworthy that before the term integration became fashionable, we were already on the path of integration. As a contemporary of mine, Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, recently put it: "We had hopes, nurtured grand ambitions and believed even the sky was not a limit, just an obstacle to be surmounted."

Dr Amoo, now with a tinge of emotion in his voice, lifted his head from his prepared speech and looked long and hard at the assembled youth spread before him in the conference hall. "Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen," he continued, "please allow me to contrast this happy youth of the past with the present condition of the youth in the sub-region with a recent quotation from the UN news agency, IRIN, web special on child soldiers: 'Some had their fingers and toes missing as a result of injuries sustained in combat. All of them hung around, with little to eat, molested by mosquitos that breed in nearby puddles, waiting for the world to come to their rescue.'

"In the whole of West Africa, the condition of the youth amounts to an emergency; it is a crisis that threatens a generation and societies. Within a span of less than two generations, the fate of youth in the sub-region has plummeted from the apex of hope to the nadir of despair."

The predominant source of this crisis, Dr Amoo said, was conflict. "The last decade must have been the most directly and structurally violent period in post-independence Africa," he lamented.

Sadly, the Mano River Basin has been one of the areas severely hit by this "violent period", thus depriving the youth in the region of the "happy past" that Dr Amoo and his contemporaries had enjoyed in their formative years.

Acknowledging that the younger generation had themselves played a key role in the conflicts which have plagued the region, "often in the forefront of the armed groups that created all sorts of human insecurity for the civilian population in the first place", Dr Amoo said the governments in the area were now concerned that the high rate of unemployment among the youth posed a serious threat to the fragile stability in the sub-region.

"In some regions of Africa," he said, "long-term conflicts have produced the horror of young men in their late teens and early 20s, raised on combat and drugs since age nine or 10. Rootless, unschooled and unprepared for any occupation whatsoever, they have become unstructured mercenaries, casual labour with arms, with the maxim: Have gun, will travel."

According to Dr Amoo, "the youth in Accra, Lagos, Ibadan, Freetown, Lome, Monrovia, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, etc, hawking dog chains, can openers and other bric-a-brac dumped in the region by globalisation are foot-soldiers-in-waiting. If the youth in their hordes in the streets of African capitals are the future (as every political speech reverently proclaims), then the future of Africa is indeed bleak."

It is to avert such a catastrophe that African governments, especially those in the MRU and Ecowas regions, have been collaborating with the UNDP African Bureau in exploring strategies to involve the youth more actively in the peace and development programmes of their countries.

The forum in Conakry was part of this joint effort. As a first step, key youth leaders from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire were brought together in a strategy meeting in Accra, Ghana, in May 2004, under the auspices of the MRU and Ecowas, and fully funded by UNDP Africa.

The meeting facilitated a discussion by the youth on the nature, modalities and the parameters of a regional initiative to make their views and positions clear on the ongoing reconciliation and peace building processes in their countries.

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The Accra meeting agreed on a plan of action towards the launching of a Youth Peace and Development Forum to enable and identify young people's concerns, needs and priorities, and, with the support of development partners, translate these into practical projects considered crucial to peace building processes in the region. As part of the implementation of the plan of action, Dr Abdoulaye Diallo, the secretary-general of the MRU, led a joint mission (which included representatives of Ecowas, UNDP and Christian Aid) to the MRU countries and Cote d'Ivoire from 27 September to 13 October last year.

The team held consultations with youth leaders, host authorities, development partners, selected UN agencies and UNDP country offices.

Throughout the consultations, the voice of the youth was clear: The extended period of conflict has denied most of them the opportunity to develop skills for viable employment. The rise in drug abuse and crime among them reflect the distortion in values and the breakdown of the social fabric, a condition that has produced a generation of disaffected youth who, in spite of their potential, are rootless, uneducated and unable to contribute substantively to peace building or be integrated in the post-conflict order.

Therefore, when they met in Conakry, the youth had one main goal in mind: to form a Youth Peace and Development Forum to enhance their role in the post-conflict rebuilding processes in the region, and to draft at least four projects with potential sources of funding.

At the end of three days of hard work, they were able to achieve their objectives. They officially established a youth forum that will meet periodically to discuss peace building and development issues. The forum will have a rotational bureau made up of a chair, a vice-chair and a rapporteur.

They agreed to take more direct responsibility in implementing and sustaining their projects. In this regard, they adopted a framework for greater collaboration and advocacy in the region.

Broadly, they agreed to establish in two years' time, four cross-border projects to enable the youth to make a practical contribution to the efforts of peace building and development.

The projects will be in the areas of communication and networking, capacity building, and enterprise development.

Under capacity building, the youth agreed to engage in academic, vocational, and conflict management skills.

Under communication and networking, they agreed to set up an FM radio station in each of the MRU countries and Cote d'Ivoire. A website, magazine or newspaper, along with other new media projects, were mooted as well. This, they hoped, would give them a bigger voice in the peace processes and increase awareness throughout the region.

Apart from creating jobs the forum will also enable them to reach their colleagues in the various countries for peace building purposes. The projects will be run and sustained financially by the youth themselves after the initial seed money had been provided by development partners mobilised by UNDP Africa.

Under enterprise development, the youth agreed to set up cross-border projects in agriculture, fishery, services and housing. They identified areas along their common borders as ideal for these schemes.

The housing project has already received strong support from the Los Angeles-based African-American estate developers, Integrated Whole Community Solutions (IWCS), who sent two representatives--Gregory Bo Kimble, the former NBA basketball superstar, and Prof Cheryl N. Grills--to the Conakry forum to brief the youth on their new way of delivering fast and durable housing, to cost as low as US$4,000 on a mortgage payable over 30 years.

Using new-age materials and technology already in use in India and elsewhere, and labour by the youth themselves, the IWCS predicted that its houses could be completed in a record five days.

The Guinean minister for youth, sports and culture, Fode Soumah, who performed the opening and closing ceremonies, promised his government's active support for the projects.

Now the ball is in the court of the UNDP and its development partners to help the youth by mobilising the seed money for them to realise their dreams.
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Title Annotation:Feature
Author:Ankomah, Baffour
Publication:New African
Date:Feb 1, 2005
Words:2096
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