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The Youth Think They Are Being Used as Pawns – And They’re Right

In a manifesto adopted at the end of a series of National Youth Agenda Symposiums convened by Naymote, Partners for Democratic Development, young Liberians from diverse backgrounds urged political leaders across the spectrum to stop engaging in actions which seek to position them as political pawns. As they look towards a future which upholds the democratic values Liberia has been establishing since its formation – and critically, since the end of the civil wars – our nation must take this request seriously if we are to create a brighter future for our children. 

For many decades now, political pundits have repeatedly used our young people as tools for political gain, rather than a contributing demographic of which intellectual horsepower, innovation, and ethics can be harnessed. 

At the symposiums, young people called on leadership across the country to address their needs: the empowerment of women’s rights specifically ending female genital mutilation (FGM); the end of impunity and the strengthening of the various anti-corruption and pro-accountability agencies; and the establishment of Science, Technology, and Innovation centers for the purpose of economic advancement and job opportunities – to name a few. 

It’s a shame these tenets of a functional society even have to be requested, but Liberia’s leaders have a demonstrated history of appealing to youth voters through the promise of change, while consistently failing to deliver. 

During the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Joseph Boakai Administration, for example, the pair campaigned on advancing peace and ending impunity for those who seriously aggrieved the Liberian people. But they never followed through once elected. In fact, the two battled serious allegations of corruption when more than twenty officials were accused of exploiting political office for personal gain, and they did nothing to prosecute let alone investigate. Sirleaf was also called out for nepotism as more than thirty of her relatives were employed by the government without the credentials required by the appointments. Indeed, she was defiant when addressing public outcry.

The two also campaigned on women’s rights, but quickly distanced themselves from “feminism,” instead supporting an insidious brand of ‘femocracy’ which stifled female participation in the political process. 

Rather, their administration had a lukewarm response to a gender equity in politics bill similar to the ones that propelled women in Rwanda, Senegal and South Africa to high public office; in 2010 the Liberian women’s legislative caucus sponsored an act mandating that women occupy at least 30 percent of political party leadership with a trust fund established to finance their electoral campaigns, yet Sirleaf and Boakai did not support the proposed law and it was never ratified. To that end, when a less radical bill allotting five seats for women in special legislative constituencies was rejected as “unconstitutional” by largely male legislators, Sirleaf and Boakai remained silent.

Even as Boakai made his rounds across the country saying, “The advancement of women and women’s rights should be the central theme in all development efforts,” he was actively preventing safeguards.

For instance, he failed to create protections for young girls and women by choosing not to outlaw FGM; and shockingly ratified laws to reduce sentences for sexual offenders. Today, as a result of their lack of commitment to women’s rights, 38.2% of women aged 15–49 in Liberia have undergone FGM; and rape has been declared a national emergency, even resulting in nationwide protests following a 19-year-old boy allegedly performing FGM on a 3-year-old girl before planning to rape her.

Now, Boakai is running for president and once again he is campaigning on lies. 

He and “leaders” like him believe enough time has passed that young people in this country have forgotten their absolute failures. They believe they will be able to perpetually pull the wool over the eyes of Liberia’s youth just long enough to be elected. 

They are wrong. 

These symposiums are finally giving a voice to young people across the country who have felt the unfair weight of being made political pawns, without any returned benefit to their rights and socio-economic situation. There is a marked swell of empowerment as young people realize they make up over 60% of the country. They have the power. And they are ready to wake up Liberia’s leaders if they don’t start enacting change now.