MRU “At Risk Youth” holds Cross Border Seminar on Peacebuilding and Social Cohesion
Like most post conflict countries, Liberia is still struggling to reintegrate its youthful population that make up more than sixty percent of its inhabitants.
Several studies have highlighted the challenges that youth face- ranging from high unemployment, drugs addiction, lack of basic opportunities, illiteracy, space for recreational activities, etc. Liberian youth are not only idle but continue to fight for inclusion and to have basic normal life, the kind of life that comes with access to food, shelter, education, health care and the prospect of someday earning an income, even a modest one. But such a sample demand still remains utopia for majority of the youth as their conditions continue to detilorate due to the lack of skills and professional qualifications that could serve as catalyst for employment and to become productive citizens.
Among the youth, there are about 175,000 conflict affected youth who are involved in pen-pen and tri-cycle riding for livelihood and to earn income. The transport sector in Liberia has been severely paralyzed during 14 years of civil war without any major intervention until now. For instance, Monrovia is host to a large youth population who lack professional skills and continue to deal with the legacies of the conflict, including weak social structures and informal institutions, culture of violence, weak social cohesion and, importantly, lack of opportunity.
These are new challenges for the new generation, most of whom have not themselves experienced the conflict but continue to struggle with its legacy, which is frustrating. Compounding the problem is the fact that neither the government nor the private sector is able to provide jobs for this demographic group- thus making many youths to pursue opportunities in the informal sector. Biking for incomes remain a major source of mobility providing cyclists with economic livelihood opportunities and the same time creating space for social and political mobilization.
Touched by the pivotal role of the youth in driving country’s development agenda, the Platform for Dialogue and Peace and St. Andrews University developed a project since 2016 to address the challenges that youth in Liberia and other Mano River Union regions are faced with. Styled as “Motoring from War to Peace”, the initial project supported social reintegration of Liberia’s conflict affected youth through the production of nationwide counter-stigma stickers and the organization of several motor cyclists, police and passengers dialogue initiatives. Based on the successful outcome of the initial project, it was decided to expand the initiative in the Mano River Basin (Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone). The expanded initiative was adapted to reflect the prevailing reality and challenges youths in the MRU Basins experience. With a wider scope, other stakeholders, including border security guards, local authorities, health workers, cross border market women and girls, people living with disabilities, etc were included in order to get first hand understanding of the major problems youth and communities at the various frontiers encounter .
The two-day seminar brought delegates and participants from four countries within the Mano River Union, namely Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Cote d’Ivoire. While the MRU Basins continue to enjoy semblance of peace and stability, the project was designed to understand challenges and vulnerabilities facing cross border communities, especially youth, in the region, as well as to map the peacebuilding initiatives and ideas that these young people are already engaged in the four countries with emphasis on conflict legacies, gender-based violence, disease prevention, social cohesion, and sustainable livelihoods . “This is not the usual Monrovia centric project but an innovative initiative that we have developed years back, when ‘at risk youth’ around the country and in neighbouring countries were not the major priority but only those who were seen as academically sound and promising”, said Jimmy Shilue, P4DP Executive Director.
True to its title, the project introduced multiple community-based dialogues and engagement processes in eight (8) key border communities of the four MRU countries which included Bo Waterside, Voinjama, Ganta, Toe Town, Zwedru, Gbalamuya, Kambia and Gbeleba/Danane. According to the organizers, these communities were selected because they were flash points of violence during the devastating civil wars across the region and they are still prone to trafficking in persons, arms, drugs, and other organized criminalities. Further, these border communities face challenges navigating and exercising their free movement rights under the ECOWAS Protocol.
In his welcome remarks, the Executive Director of P4DP, James Shilue, said that one of the reasons for the seminar was to enable the organizers to share the work that have done through the various borders. He acknowledged the importance and supporting role different institutions in play in building peace. “We recognize the role and invaluable contributions that the young people made to the peace and development of this country.” According to him, the youth play a pivotal role in pushing our developmental agenda forward and we need to work with them not only because they constitute more than 60 per cent of our population but there is a need for us to understand that today’s youth inherited the problems they face and not necessarily the cause. As such, we are obliged to work with them consistent with UNSCR 2250 in preventing violent conflict and in building and sustaining peace”.
For his part, the Deputy Minister for Youth Development, Isaac Doe said for the young people to achieve the level of changes they envision, it has to start from themselves. He further said that the government through the Ministry of Youth and Sports would continue support young people through programs. “When it comes to addressing changes, we have to look at where we came from because other than that, we will still have the same country, the same sub-region, we will still the same problems in the same world,” Minister Doe said.
Giving a brief overview of the project, the Principal Researcher of University of St Andrews, Dr. Jeremy McMullin, said that it would be disheartening to see the sub-region as an area for distress and exploitation. While enumerating on the achievements, Dr. McMullin highlighted the various initiatives P4DP and his University undertook, including the production of bumper stickers to help destigmatize motorcyclists, providing funding support to house radio program for cyclist union called ‘FOMTUL hour’, provision of business skills trainings, awarding scholarships to cyclists in Monrovia and certain counties, and hosting several police-cyclist dialogue sessions in response to main outcomes of the project. He indicated that cyclists can and should have central roles in devising programs to face their most serious challenges urging national, international actors and donors to stop asking whether ‘at risk youth’ support peace but instead cautioning them to support initiatives that originate from the cyclists themselves as part of the localized and regional peacebuilding process. He frowned against the prioritization of ‘quick fix’ initiatives that are not attuned to the broader problems’ cyclists are facing but driven by impressionistic disposition.
Also speaking, the MRU Country Coordinator, Christian Jallah, expressed appreciation to the organizers on behalf of his boss, Ambassador, Maria G. Harrison, for affording him the opportunity to travel with their team to South-eastern Liberia in order to have first-hand experience of their work and the same time access some of the problems cross border population face. Mr. Jallah pointed out that that if he had not gone with St. Andrews and P4DP’s team to Grand Gedeh County, he would not have known that the border between Cote divoire and Liberia in the Toe’ Town belt has been closed since 2019. “It was due to my participation and anxiety to observe how cross border dialogues are conducted on the Ivorian side of the border that enabled me to know what MRU citizens are going through. It was an eye opening as we at the MRU are responsible to promote and foster free trade and closer economic co-operation among its MRU States, through the establishment and elimination of barriers to trade and expansion of productive capacity, among others”. Jallah said that he informed relevant authorities about the difficulties and barriers in crossing and immediate solutions were found through the intervention of MRU officials in Cote d’viore and Liberia.
Meanwhile, participants from Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Guinea shared their experiences of the project in their respective communities. Tatta Koromah, youth chairlady from Sierra Leone said they used to have problem with the border guards, when they want to cross to Liberia to sell their goods. However, since their last dialogue session with people from the security sector and the cyclists, they do not face too much obstacles and through the awareness gained from different dialogues session they now understand their rights as MRU citizens thereby minimizing harassment as before. For his part, Peter Klogbayee, FOMTUL Coordinator in Baihai Chiefdom, in Grand Gedeh County said that the project has helped to build trust and understanding such that there is now free movement and understanding along some border points. The cyclist’s coordinator said they organized football matches on both sides of the border between Ivorian and Liberian cyclists and when they do not have enough players, the community people are used to argument their teams. All of these engagements help to strengthen their network and good for peace. Speaking through a translator, the Ivorian participant, Kouite Juior, said that he was very embarrassed when the Ivorian security refused to allow the visitors from Liberia to cross over to the Ivorian side despite, being known in his community. “I am grateful to Mr. Jallah for his swift intervention that instantly saw the removal of check points and too much bureaucracy”. He asked for the project to be extended to other parts of Ivory Coast to foster peace and reconciliation. Korlu Mubah, a cross border market woman from Lofa – Guinea border, she acknowledged that the project helped to strengthen their relationship with their people on the both sides of the border because of joint dialogue meetings and experience sharing.
Meanwhile, in presenting the main findings of the project, Peter Senesie- Project Manager Inclusive Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding Project and implementing partner in Sierra Leone highlighted main findings from the two 2 project sites across the Sierra Leone and Guinea borders. According to him, the project was quite impactful in terms of helping the youth to have increased knowledge in peacebuilding, conflict transformation and resolution. The project also facilitated and created opportunity share information and foster referrals of real and potential threats to the relevant actors.
P4DP and St. Andrews University, thanks to research grant from Sweden based FBA, are presently piloting a new initiative aimed at giving cyclists alternative career path.