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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Sierra Leone, Any Hope For The Future?

In Freetown's rubbish-strewn slums, where sick children defecate in sewers by pot-holed streets, music blaring from shops and taxis tells Sierra Leone's youth that politicians have failed their war-ravaged country.

The West African nation's 1991-2002 civil war was infamous for drugged child soldiers who raped and mutilated thousands of civilians, but now young Sierra Leoneans hold in their hands the future of their country, one of the poorest on earth.

At presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday -- the first since a U.N. peacekeeping force pulled out in 2005 and a crucial test of the former British colony's emergence from conflict -- over half the 2.6 million voters will be under 32.

"Pak N Go!" booms the chorus of a dance floor hit by rappers Jungle Leaders in a stark message to the ruling party. Other songs -- in the Krio dialect devised by the freed slaves who founded the colony -- urge young people to oust the graft-ridden establishment and take a stand against violence.

President Tejan Kabbah is stepping down at the polls, having picked his deputy Soloman Berewa as the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) candidate. But disillusionment is rife with their failure to tackle corruption and curb biting poverty, despite the country's reserves of gold, diamonds and minerals.

"Last time I voted for Kabbah but he did not do what he said," said Osman Koroma, 26, a builder who earns less than $1 a day. "I'm angry: there is no light, no roads. We do suffer. (Politicians) do nothing for us. All they do is eat."

Like many voters, Koroma is going to switch his support from the SLPP to the opposition All People's Congress (APC), which is promising zero-tolerance for graft and could mount a strong challenge for power after a good showing in 2004 local polls.

Another song popular on Freetown's rain-soaked streets, by an artist called Emerson, brands politicians as "Tu Fut Arata" -- two-legged rats.

"The market is calling for their music," said Nicholas Demeter of U.S. election monitors, the National Democratic Institute. "But youth can also be manipulated. They're young, and can be bought off with a few dollars."


Decades of graft under previous APC governments helped spark the rebel Revolutionary United Front's (RUF) uprising in 1991 which signaled the start of a conflict which left 50,000 people dead and displaced more than half a million.

Financed by sales of illegal "blood diamonds" dug from mud pits and river beds, the RUF bought arms from Liberia's former President Charles Taylor, currently on trial in the Hague for crimes against humanity for his part in the conflict.

Depressingly for Sierra Leoneans, the war achieved nothing. The RUF merged last month with the very party it took up arms to fight, the APC, and graft is worsening: Sierra Leone was ranked the 14th most corrupt state in the world last year by Transparency International, down 16 places from 2005.

Since its unilateral military intervention in 2000, which many observers say saved the country from anarchy, Britain has retrained the army and attempted to rebuild state institutions.

But in April, Britain's overseas development department DFID recommended its government withdraw funding from Sierra Leone's Anti-Corruption Commission because it had done nothing to root out high-profile graft, instead pursuing small-scale embezzlers such as a schoolmaster and a hospital caterer.

A survey of more than 5,000 voters nationwide conducted by the UK-funded Westminster Foundation for Democracy showed almost half said they have "complete distrust" for politicians.

"Everybody is so disillusioned that people don't know what to vote," said Iyamide, a Freetown resident. "But it definitely won't be SLPP ... I voted for them the last time but corruption is just too much."


Many young Sierra Leoneans lost a decade of their lives to the civil war, running from camp to camp to escape the rebels. Despite the end of the conflict, they have scant opportunities: according to United Nations' figures, 60 percent of those under 35 are unemployed and two in three adults are illiterate.

Rural youth who drift to Freetown in search of work are often disappointed, arriving with agricultural skills unsuited to city life and ending up destitute on the streets.

"The youth are prone to violence because of unemployment. That's why most of them got involved in the war," said Abdul Kuyateh, press officer at the U.N. mission. "The youth are volatile -- they have been very much marginalized."

Since the official start of campaigning, intimidation and violence have been widely reported, threatening to jeopardize the credibility of the polls.

Diplomats and military sources say all the political parties have been mobilizing youth into thuggish gangs and recruiting some of the 70,000 ex-fighters who were demobilized after the war as bodyguards in the run-up to the elections.

Musicians have also been quick to band together to urge calm. One group styled itself "Artists for Peace" and its track "Go Vote, No Violence" blares out in minibuses across the capital.

With U.N. backing, the group has taken their song to provincial towns such as Kono and Kenema in the deprived east -- diamond mining hotspots fiercely fought over by rebels during the war.

"This election is make-or-break for this country," said musician Wahid, who sings with Artists for Peace. "If we pick up guns and fight each other again then the country will break. Music is our weapon against violence."


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