October 29, 2005
Youth Power in Liberia: From Bullets to Ballots

MONROVIA, Liberia - War took James Garmey's childhood. It came at night, in the form of armed men battering down a door and carrying him off, the 8-year-old son of a rural customs collector, to be a soldier for the warlord and future president Charles Taylor.

"I went to training," said Mr. Garmey, now 22, speaking in the smooth patois of the Liberian street, letting consonants and bits of grammar slip away. "I was small, but I learned to hold gun and after a while went to battlefront. I fire gun, I defend my area."

When Mr. Taylor fled in 2003, Mr. Garmey finally put his gun down, saying he had traded it for a different weapon altogether: the ballot.

"I cast my vote and that is my power," he said. "I no need any more gun."

Much of Africa's future belongs to young men and women like Mr. Garmey, members of a generation orphaned by conflict and AIDS, hardened by combat and want, often illiterate and unbound by deep traditions and taboos.

Manipulated by their elders, they helped unleash a cycle of bloodshed that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in West Africa alone. In that way, through their numbers and their physical strength, young people have wielded a kind of indirect and chaotic power in this region for the better part of two decades.

Now, as democracy slowly spreads, the young wield another kind of power. In Liberia people from 18 to 22 make up almost a quarter of registered voters. Add those up to the age of 28, and young people make up a huge bloc of Liberia's voting public, no less than 40 percent.

Across the region, a population explosion has created a similar youth bulge that is only now beginning to make itself manifest at the voting booth.

"They can make anybody win and can make anybody lose," said Sidi M. Diawara, an election expert in Liberia for the National Democratic Institute, a nonpartisan organization that helps develop political parties and monitor elections. "They are now the backbone of political parties, and not just in Liberia. There is a huge number of youth entering the democratic process across the region."

In Liberia, which just held its first election since the end of the 14-year civil war that killed 200,000 and displaced a third of the population, the young helped propel the presidential candidacy of George Weah, 39, a former soccer star in Europe who is idolized by many Liberians, but most of all by young men, for whom soccer is virtually a religion.

Mr. Weah came in first in the initial round of voting on Oct. 11, receiving 28 percent of the votes in a field of 22 candidates, despite having no political experience and little formal education. He will face the No. 2 finisher, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 66, an economist with an Ivy League education and years of experience in politics, in a runoff on Nov. 8.

The race between Mr. Weah and Ms. Johnson-Sirleaf, both long assumed to be front-runners, in many ways crystallized Africa's generation gap, offering a stark choice between a well-known member of Liberia's political elite and a total outsider of the new generation.

Mr. Weah's lack of political experience and formal education is seen as an asset by many of his supporters. "He know book, he no know book, I'll vote for him," is a popular slogan, a twist on the chilling campaign cry for Mr. Taylor, who dragged the country through so much bloodshed: "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll vote for him."

Mr. Weah's rise has unsettled the tiny elite, with many worrying that he will become a figure like Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe, who seized power in a bloody coup in 1980, ending more than a century of political domination by a small, powerful clique of descendants of the American slaves who founded this country more than 100 years ago.

Like Mr. Weah, Sergeant Doe was an unschooled man with indigenous roots, but Sergeant Doe, then 28, found his mandate through force. Mr. Weah has found his at the ballot box, largely by appealing to young men like Mr. Garmey.

"I casted my vote for George Weah," Mr. Garmey said, offering his ink-stained thumb as proof. "I feel like he's a new man and he knows nothing about Liberian war."

In a society where power usually comes with age, the generational shift has intensified old flash points. Intergenerational conflict is perhaps the oldest kind of conflict in West Africa - it has formed the basis for power struggles for hundreds of years.

"To be powerful and rich in traditional societies of this region before colonization, you typically just had to wait your turn, until the people ahead of you in line died off," said Mike McGovern, an anthropologist who directs the West Africa office of the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan organization focusing on conflict resolution. "It was not a long wait, because of low life expectancy.

"If you waited long enough, you could marry 5 or 10 women and command 2 or 3 generations of children. And in these societies, where land was pretty much unlimited, people represented wealth."

The only way for young people to jump ahead in line was through warfare, so a kind of low-level conflict has blazed on and off for generations. But in the last 20 years the power struggle between young and old has worsened as resources have become scarcer and the region's population has swelled.

"With increasing population density, wealth in people becomes problematic," Mr. McGovern said. "Land is scarce, water is scarce, resources are scarce. So people become a liability, and the level of tension rises."

Millions of idle young people, especially young men, have fed and fueled the interconnected civil wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast and have destabilized other nations, like Guinea, long simmering under the thumb of an ailing dictator, and Nigeria, where youth militias run rampant through the oil-rich Niger Delta.

Now that democracy is coming to more of the region, these young people are a boon and also a source of instability. They are willing to try new ways of governing and may resist the view of the state as a means of self-enrichment rather than the common good, said George Wisner, the head of the Federation of Liberian Youth, an advocacy group for young people here.

"Many of the children of Liberia haven't seen water from a pipe; they have never seen electricity from the wall," Mr. Wisner said. "There is general frustration that young people haven't been part of the decision making in this country, and this inner yearning to have a voice in national affairs. This means an openness to something new."

Yet they have been ill prepared for their new civic role.

"This is probably the only country in the world where you have a less literate youth population than the adult population," said Angela Kearny, director of Liberia's Unicef program.

Democracy will require a great deal of patience from this young, restive population. But waiting, which is what their elders have always told them they must do, is anathema to the members of this generation.

"When the objectives of an open society are achieved in Liberia, young people are invariably going to ask about the results," Mr. McGovern said. "Do we have jobs, do we have better living conditions? Is it easier to get married? The problem is you can have all the trappings of an open society and still have very little to show for it."

Patience is already in short supply. At a building called Titanic, a huge office building once meant to house the Health Ministry but never finished, dozens of former child soldiers live as squatters.

"We need job training, something to better our lives," said Ballah Henry, a lean, muscular man of 27 who joined up with Charles Taylor's militia when he was 14. His ferocity on the battlefield earned him the nickname Bad Blood. He disarmed, along with more than 100,000 other combatants, and has warily signed on to peace and democracy. He says he will wait, but not forever.

"We need to eat," Mr. Henry said. "If we don't eat, if we don't work, there's gonna be war again in this place."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company