For the last six decades, political elites have disadvantaged, marginalized, and infantilized young people in the Mano River Basin, a region comprising Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In the 1980s many youths in this region found themselves unemployed and in search of a means of survival, identity, and a place in their society. Hence, the eruption of civil wars in Liberia (1989), Sierra Leone (1991), and Cote d’Ivoire (2002), and the mass mobilization of youth as perpetrators of violence, came as little surprise to many observers. Since then, there has been a rich interest on the part of both academics and practitioners in understanding the relationship between young people and conflict in the region, and to better involve youth in the peacebuilding process.
Despite the fact that young people played a crucial role in the civil wars during the 1990s and early 2000s, their involvement in the peace processes that followed was very limited. Peacebuilding was instead largely focused on appeasing senior level commanders, rather than addressing the factors responsible for the conflicts in the first place. As a result, to date the region has witnessed the re-emergence of the same elite networks and structures that drove many young people to participate in armed conflict in the 1990s and 2000s. Meanwhile, in neighboring Guinea, though the country did not suffer from a civil war, it too has had a history of high unemployment, insecurity, and poor governance marked by corruption. This has given rise to youth-related violence, with youth viewing themselves as ‘victims of the system’ and clashing with security officials over the lack of socioeconomic and political inclusion, and participation.
Today, though the violence has ceased, the historical legacies of corruption, nepotism, marginalization, and isolation persist. As a result, countries in the Mano River Basin region have been unable to move out of the post-conflict recovery phase, during which the underlying causes of conflict are typically addressed. What exists now is a “negative peace,” which Johan Galtung called the “absence of violence.” The lack of resolution has been compounded by economic hardship in the region, which was worsened in recent years by the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus between 2013 and 2015.
In response to this lack of political space, a culture of youth gangs and cliques has emerged as an alternative means of expression and social identity. Such developments have negative implications for the peacebuilding processes in the region and may lead to a relapse into violence.
Yet young people are also finding ways to re-engineer their social space and create avenues for self-discovery and group identification. For example, local makeshift cafés called “Ataya bases” in Sierra Leone, and open social spaces called “Bureau” in Guinea, are used as places where mostly young men can meet and air their grievances, or discuss their frustrations with the system and talk about what can be done to ameliorate their circumstances. It is therefore important for governments to listen to such conversations at the local level when shaping youth-related policies at both the national and regional levels, since it is the youth who are directly affected.
The persistence of negative peace in these countries today demonstrates that there is an urgent need for a shift in the approach to peacebuilding in the Mano River Basin area. Vital to any improvement, however, is the need for the constructive engagement of, and investment in young people. Such interventions have to be youth-focused and context specific, and designed and vocalized by young people to meet their needs and aspirations. Key issues include employment and education. Politicians and policymakers should aim to provide youth with a greater voice in policy circles through direct integration and participation in decision-making processes, to ensure a more positive peace.