Youths as agency in politics: can we blame the youths of Sierra Leone?

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By Saidu Bangura

Ataya Base (Tea shop) in Freetown

A discussion of youths and/in politics is as controversial a topic as the allusion I have made in the title that youths are agency in politics. Agency as used in this context should be understood to mean “instrumental” given the role youths play or the roles they are made to play in politics. However, when we consider the question “can we blame the youths of Sierra Leone?”, two old but pertinent songs come to mind: Peter Tosh’s “Can’t Blame the Youths” and Musical Youth’s “The Youth of Today”. While both songs may not have been written to have any political undertones as we may want to imagine or interpret them, some aspects of the lyrics can be juxtaposed to give us an interesting reading in this article, especially as they pertain to how we should perceive youths in society or how they should perceive themselves.

Peter Tosh’s “Can’t Blame the Youths” opens with a strong but contentious caution “you can’t blame the youths; you can’t fool the youths” whereas Musical Youth’s “The Youth of Today” opens with a straightforward and categorical message: “don’t blame the youth … don’t take us for fools”. When we put both choruses into perspective, the songs seem to tell us the prevailing conditions of the youths in society have nothing to do with them, but what their polities want them to be or how their societies condition them to be. While I do not intend to critique both songs, I equally will not make any critical interpretations here. Rather, some aspects of the lyrics of the songs will be used to make my case in this article. To do so, I may have to pick a few things from the songs and see how they rhyme with the political reality of Sierra Leone and how the youths of our country are consequently impacted by the politics of the day.

For 61 years now, successive political parties and individual politicians in Sierra Leone have used the youths as agency to launch, promote and champion their political careers, and maintain their grip on political power and the consequent assault on our resources given the politicians’ easy access to the youths and the latter’s prompt willingness to propel the former to Parliament and State House. While the youths may not (have) be(en) aware of how politicians have been “robbing”, “raping”, “kidnapping” and “killing” their future (echoing Peter Tosh) even before the politicians assume their respective offices, and considering the continued and constant “brainwashing” of the youths in Sierra Leone by politicians, my goal in this article is to reflect on how the Sierra Leonean youths have been used, abused, misused, refused, un(der)represented, misrepresented and abandoned by the political parties and politicians in Sierra Leone for the latter’s selfish political gains and that of their associates.

Considering the sociopolitical and economic milieu in which the African youths were (are) born into, and raised, and consequently survive through, the Sierra Leonean youths inclusive, we learn in Jon Abbink’s article “Being Young in Africa: the politics of despair and renewal” that the African young (wo)man faces a lot of odds and challenges and has no control over her/his future. While some African countries may have made progress in areas such as education that leads to a gainful technical career pathway immediately after secondary school, youth entrepreneurship and employment opportunities for university graduates, access to improved health care facilities, access to a sustainable livelihood and housing for young families, and the creation and promotion of an enabling environment for private businesses to thrive, and, hence, the creation of jobs for the youths, can we say the same for Sierra Leone?

The continued economic challenges faced by the parents and older relatives of these young (wo)men who could have guided them into a profitable professional path, the unavailability of technical training facilities and institutions for these young people to learn trades that will lead them to becoming self-employed and self-sufficient, their permanently being relegated to unemployment and poverty taking into account the lack of production industries except the few extractive ones, their subsequent exclusion and marginalization from mainstream society unless when needed by rogue politicians, has made many youths to see prostitution as a way to survive, drug addiction as an escape route, the 24/7 laid-back spending time attitude mostly at Ataya Bases, and their relentless following of politicians and other “Big Men” for pittances to execute their political and other errands while they continue poor and destitute. Can this be a result of their hopelessness in laying their hands on something tangibly profitable or is it due to bad politics practiced by our politicians and the culture of dependency installed and maintained for decades?

Do we blame the youths, or do we blame the politicians for the predicament of the youths?

The answer to the above question takes us back to the words of the choruses of Peter Tosh’s song: “you can’t blame the youths; you can’t fool the youths” and that of Musical Youth’s “don’t blame the youth … don’t take us for fools”. Or can we (not)? The binary opposition in the words of the chorus of Peter Tosh’s song, “you can’t blame the youths” on the one hand, and “you can’t fool the youths” on the other, introduces us to the linguistic and political dialectics of where and on whom to cast the blame for the predicament of the youths: the fault is not theirs and you can’t make it theirs. Musical Youth’s no-nonsense direct message “don’t blame the youth … don’t take us for fools” is as clear as crystal: we are not responsible for our dilemma; we know where our problems emanate, and we know who to blame. Is it their fault or are they victims of the societies and political dispensations they were born, raised, and live in? Is it the politicians’ fault in not implementing programmes or creating opportunities that benefit the youths or are the youths not ambitious enough to task the politicians to deliver services that benefit the people, particularly the youths, the future of the nation, they govern?

While we may want to say politicians have been arrogating for themselves and their families and immediate allies all the resources of the state at the detriment of the entire nation, especially these vulnerable young (wo)men who are mostly used for electioneering purposes and abandoned immediately after that process, are the youths themselves not responsible for their conditions? The culture of dependency on the affluent cultivated and cared for by the politicians and other prominent citizens has made many people, especially the young (wo)men who are in the majority, not to be too concerned that time wasted is never regained or to aspire for a better future for themselves.

The instrumentalization of the youths by politicians due to the former’s socioeconomic vulnerability and their lack of a sustainable means of sustenance, livelihood, and economic engagement and independence, makes one wonder: why do people go into politics? Do they go into politics to serve the people and their communities and consequently the country as a whole or do they go into politics to serve themselves? The answer to these questions depends on where you find yourself, and probably how you perceive politics and political participation.

If the youths constitute agency in politics or are instrumental in the election of who govern them, then those who govern owe the youths a huge responsibility. On this note, Musical Youth’s resounding statement that “The youth of today has got lots to say/It’s our life, it’s our future/Because we’re living today/So don’t blame the youth” becomes so relevant for the youths of Sierra Leone as for the UK youths then that the song may have been made for.

Inasmuch as we may want to apportion blames on the youths for their plight in Sierra Leone, and much as we must encourage them to own their responsibilities, we must consider the following: (a) what existing national, regional, district, town, and community level programmes are there to remove our young (wo)men from their current socioeconomic predicament? (b) what is the income level of the older family members of these young (wo)men? (c) what is the educational level or what do the parents/guardians of these young (wo)men do? (d) where do these young (wo)men come from, where do they currently live and how do they earn their living? (e) are they in conflict with the law and if so which area(s)? (f) what do they aspire or want to do in life? and (g) how and where do they spend the day? These questions and many more like them should be on the minds of current and aspiring politicians if we are to build a nation that cares for its future. Today’s youths are tomorrow’s politicians, law enforcement officers, teachers, nurses, and other state functionaries.

As I have written in some other articles, our politicians are selfish. The politics of Sierra Leone is about them and their cronies and immediate family members. Our Parliament is a theatre of dramatic monologues and political party soliloquies. The problems of the country are not part of the order of their discussions. Our MPs are actors whose scripts contain bills that benefit only them and their political parties. There was no controversy over the Welfare Bill for Parliamentarians (Parliamentary Act 2022), which was for the benefit of the entire membership of Parliament, but for others that present political disadvantage or advantage to one side of the aisle or the other, the petulant bickering is unending (the case of the Proposed Public Elections Act 2022). The basic needs of the people are never discussed in parliament because they are very much unconcern about the future of the people they claim to represent, especially these young (wo)men that they instrumentalise before and during political campaigns, and consequently abandon them after elections, and whose aspirations and future are never discussed in parliament.

Until our politicians understand that one goes into politics to serve the country and its people and not to get rich, and to prepare the present generation to take after them irrespective of their socioeconomic background and political affiliations, the responsibility of our young (wo)men is on them. Until our politicians understand that they need to have tangible programmes that are executable so that today’s youths can be well prepared for tomorrow’s challenges, the future of our country is bleak. Until our politicians understand that siphoning off our resources for their personal benefits and that of their immediate families and cronies is a disservice and a threat to the sustainability and peace of Sierra Leone, these young (wo)men that are neglected today and whose future is not a concern, will be tomorrow’s aching challenges.

For the 2023 municipal and town council, parliamentary and presidential elections, I would love to see a serene but politically challenging and active youth; a youth that will tell the politicians to bring their children and other family members in their campaign trail; a youth that will ask politicians what programmes they have for their communities and the future of the nation, especially the future of their group – the youths; a youth that will refuse to accept drugs and alcoholic drinks, T-shirts and peanuts to campaign for people that will abandon them immediately after the results are announced; a vigilant youth that will discourage politicians from buying their way to political offices; a youth that will ask critical questions about how and why the country has been mis-governed for 61 years by two political parties, and how it will be governed for the next five years; a youth that will be more concerned about the future of the country, and less so about the religion and sex of the candidates, or the ethnolinguistic group and region a candidate hails from; a youth that will put the future of the country first, second, third, fourth and fifth and hence tell the politicians that the future of the country is at stake and it is their biggest concern; a youth that will not fight other youths for politicians or for political parties, but will engage themselves in civility and camaraderie as they challenge politicians for the future of Sierra Leone.

Saidu Bangura PH.D

Saidu Bangura is an Assistant Professor at the University of Cape Verde from 2016 to date. He lectures in the English Studies Course, Faculty of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, where he directs the Masters in English Studies: Linguistics and English Language Teaching, a new academic program he helped build at the University of Cape Verde. He also coordinates Languages and Literature in the Scientific Council of the university since 2019 to date. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Linguistics from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, and a PhD in Translation, Communication and Culture with a specialty in English Linguistics from the University of Las Palmas, Canary Islands, Spain.

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