Policy Making on Children in Conflict: Lessons from Sierra Leone & Liberia

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The aim of this article is to reflect on the roots of the violence perpetrated by young fighters in the conflicts in Sierra Leone (1991-1999) and Liberia (1989-1996). Young people face a double humiliation in these two countries. They are given little or no respect and seen as "second hand" civilians. They are not taken seriously, nor do they have any executive power over their own lives. I will argue that policy-making related to preventing the recruitment of young people by various violent factions, and policy-making on the reintegration of young people into civil society, should pay attention to the specific voices and agency of young people in Africa. Various ways should be considered of proactively increasing opportunities for civic participation for young people in social, economic, political and cultural domains.

Young people are becoming increasingly involved as combatants in contemporary African conflicts. The Liberian civil war (1989 - 1996) and the Sierra Leonean conflict have involved large numbers of child or youth combatants. These young people, who are often poorly educated and from remote rural areas, were often the most feared fighters, particularly in the view of the urbanised elite in Freetown and Monrovia. At times colonially-rooted attitudes to interior peoples reinforce the stigmatisation of young rural combatants as "barbarians."

There have been various explanations for the extreme violence that has been exhibited in these conflicts. (Ellis, 1995; Richards, 1996; Kaplan, 1994) "Scheff's (1994) analysis of emotions and wars stresses unacknowledged shame. Shame is provoked by humiliation and, if left unacknowledged, shame generates feelings of anger and vengeance. Acts of vengeance, however, are not necessarily directed at those who have been responsible for the humiliation." (Outram, 367:1997)

An account of a young Kamajo fighter in Sierra Leone underlines this view. He first talks about the reasons why, according to him, the rebels are fighting (because of widespread corruption by the government and patronage relationships that exclude young and talented people). He then explains what went wrong with the "program" of the Revolutionary United Front:

...if the rebels had come peacefully, if they hadn't stolen our people, hadn't burnt our villages...if they hadn't done anything that harmed us...but if they had only gone to the government with blood...If they had come trustfully [in a trusting way?] to the government, come and attended to the government [changed it?], we sure [would] have been glad. Because, according to their view they are fighting for their rights. (...) They are fighting for their rights, but during their fight for their rights, they go to the villages. They go to [persons] who don't know anything about the government. They go and kill [them] and steal [their] property. That was the reason why I was against them. But if the rebels [had come] down here [to Freetown] to this people...because these are the people who created the war...if the rebels would have come to them, plenty of Sierra Leoneans would have supported them. But because they went and [attacked] the poor, that's why I was against them. (Peters & Richards, 200:1998a)

Humiliation of the interior people by the agents of the state in Freetown or Monrovia is important, but does not itself provide an adequate account. A second aspect, the humiliation of young people in Africa by the older generations, might provide a more powerful explanation of the high numbers of under-age combatants involved and the terrible acts of violence committed. These intergenerational tensions were present before the war and relate to processes of change, power and modernisation. Young people make reference to these tensions on various occasions. Asking an exchild combatant about the future of Sierra Leone, he replies:

The future of Sierra Leone? I don't really know where the future is going, because it is just somehow bad now. I have not seen any improvement. Because one thing [is for] sure, we don't respect kids, we don't respect children. In other countries, [those at] the top will know that after them the children will be next. But here they don't really know that. They just work in their own interest, and not in the interest of the children, you know. So I don't really know how the future can be good. Because if they are working in the interest of the children and try to make the children good, I think the future will be good. But if they don't care about the children, it means the future is just dropping. So I think Sierra Leone is indigent. Everybody just has to fight for themselves, you know. (...) They don't listen to children in Sierra Leone...if you want to say something to your father or your mother, they can say "no, don't say anything to me. I was born before you were, so I know everything." But that is not really correct. You might be born before me, but I can see something you cannot. They don't realise that in this country. So what they feel like doing when they are bigger...they think that everything that they think about is the best. And we cannot think about something that is good. They don't even count children, to know what children are really about, you know. (Peters & Richards, 614:1998b)

Africa is the "youngest" continent: half of its population is under the age of eighteen. Young people do not always feel represented by a government with members aged fifty or more. Faction leaders are often younger and address issues that are interesting and relevant to the youth population.

When the NPRC, [with its 27 year-old Captain Valentine Strasser as president] came to power, there was a guy called S. A. J. Musa. When he was in the power, they cared about youths. They made some...what you call..."masons," you know. There are youths in the area. They talked to youths, they encouraged youths. But when he went away, ah, they never cared about youths [again]. (Peters & Richards, 614:1998b)

What Can We Learn from these Accounts?

In the first place, youths in African countries are not necessarily the "mindless killers" or small "barbarians" depicted by the local elite. Neither are they merely victims of unscrupulous "warlords" or undemocratic regimes. Their analysis of the political, social and economic situation in their country has its logic and is often remarkably accurate. Their expectations and demands are reasonable and not necessarily overstated. For these reasons young people's understanding and construction of the situation should not be dismissed. Rather their voice and agency can and should be taken seriously.

Secondly, it can be dangerous to ignore young people. Some degree of self-determination over their lives will be taken, if it is not granted voluntarily, by force. Inexpensive, light weapons are widespread in Africa. The humiliation of young people by older generations in the context of weak civil structures, poor educational provisions, and low employment opportunities can easily propel young people to join alternative factions where they can play more prominent roles, even when these involve high levels of violence.

Thirdly, prevention of youth conscription requires changes in political, cultural and economic arrangements. For a start, it is critical that young people be meaningfully involved in decision-making processes. This can be done at both village and national levels, and include, for example, the creation of a special department of youth issues, beaded by young people, easily accessible to young people and with clear lines of accountability. Another option is to seriously consider enfranchising young people by lowering the voting age. What exactly is a democracy when more than half of the population has no legal power? "Old enough to fight, old enough to vote," as they say. It is important to take all possible measures to make the needs, problems and demands of young people more visible and to ensure that appropriate action is taken.

Changes in economic arrangements are also necessary. With declining international support the old patronage relationships can no longer fulfill young people's expectations of education or jobs. Eager to find new patrons, they turn to faction leaders and commanders. Militia life offers training and a livelihood in countries where poverty and numbers overwhelm education opportunities and jobs.

Programs should therefore focus particularly on creating jobs and other economic opportunities for young people. A "youth focus" should be put on the agenda in a similar way that the environment, women, poverty elimination or good government are criteria for the allocation of development aid.

Increasing young people's access to economic, social and cultural production opportunities is also likely to help change perceptions about the young. If youth are considered useful and productive, older people are more likely to recognise young people as important to the present and the future. This perception may also enable older people to pay more serious attention to providing significant alternatives to the youth most at risk of militia engagement by creating meaningful spaces for young people in civil structures and processes.

In short, policy making on children in armed conflict must involve an active engagement with what young people have to say, how they construct their understanding of the world, their nuanced and complex analyses, and the priorities they identify as worthy of attention. The young man's statement below is a good example of something worth listening to and reflecting on. Policy making that ignores children's voices does so at its own peril, and is more likely to fail to bring real gains for the children it aims to benefit.

Because we are sitting in Sierra Leone and we cannot learn. Because there is no good education here. We are wasting [away]. If they sent us to other places, where we can do other different types of work [for experience]...some of us, our talent is to do [these other] things...but we are just here, wasting. Go to school in the morning. In the school we cannot learn better, [we] just write. You have nobody to coach you. Someone who can teach you better in the school...it is not school in fact. Give us some vocational or trade center to go and learn something. Something put into your head so that tomorrow [you will] not suffer too much. Yes, even to make [a] cutlass...but I don't know how to make [even such a simple farm implement]. Except if I so to someone and he learn how to make it. But that can only [happen] when you have money. So [really], we are wasting. That is my last word." (Peters & Richards, 601:1998b)

References & further reading

Elis, S. (1995). Liberia 1989-1994, A Study of Ethnic and Spiritual Violence. African Affairs, 94, pp 165-197.

Kaplan, R. D. (1994). The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, and Disease are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of our Planet. Atlantic Monthly, February, pp 44-76.

Outram, Q. (1997). It's Terminal Either Way: An Analysis of Armed Conflict in Liberia, 1989 - 1996. Review of African Political Economy, 73, pp 355-371.

Peters, K. & Richards, P. (1998a). Why We Fight: Voices of Under-age Youth Combatants in Sierra Leone. Africa, v. 68(2).

Peters, K. & Richards, P. (1998b). Jeune Combatants Parlant de la Geurre et de la Paix en Sierra Leone. Cahier d'Etudes Africaines, 2-4, pp 581-617.

Richards, P. (1996). Fighting for the Rain Forest: War, Youth and Resources in Sierra Leone. Oxford: James Currey.

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