“We need a voice!”
Trainer and mentor, Sierra Leone
Tok Bot Salone: young people debate what's at stake for them in Sierra Leone's elections on 17 November.
With presidential and legislative elections on 17 November, the political temperature in Sierra Leone is rising and the atmosphere charged.
Candidates from the All People’s Congress (APC) and the main opposition, Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), are criss-crossing the country competing to see who can pull in the biggest crowds at their rallies.
Both sides are particularly keen on attracting young voters: roughly 70% of Sierra Leone’s population is under 30. That's why we chose to produce a special edition of our TV and radio question-and-answer show Tok Bot Salone (Talk About Sierra Leone) featuring young people from around the country.
Instead of the programme's usual format - which sees the audience asking questions of a panel - the show brought together approximately 100 young people on a school campus in Freetown to discuss what’s at stake for them at the polls.
School pupils and university students sat together with youth activists, young market traders, journalists, unemployed young people and those with disabilities.
We brought together these young people from the east and the west, the north and the south of Sierra Leone so they could have the chance to lead the conversation, highlight the issues that matter the most to them and suggest how best their needs could be addressed.
The result was electric. They spoke eloquently about how if leaders want to talk about the development of Sierra Leone, they must concentrate on the nation’s young people. As one participant, a blind secondary school student, movingly told me: "The nation's young people are our future."
Education and youth unemployment were, perhaps unsurprisingly, two of the most dominant issues. A 2010 government report found that 70% of youths in Sierra Leone are unemployed or underemployed, and 50% are illiterate and unskilled.
Kemoh Mansaray, a student of the University of Makeni, was only one of the many voices calling for the issue to be addressed: "Government should focus on education for us the young people. We do not only need wishy-washy types of education. We need education that leads to gainful employment for the youth. You go to the mining companies and all you will see is a lot of young labourers. We don't want that as young people. We need quality education and this should be a priority for any government."
The link between high youth unemployment and violence was also powerfully expressed. Abdul Karim Sesay, a young reporter from African Young Voices Radio, said: "If you go back to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, you see that one of the causes of the war in Sierra Leone was massive youth unemployment. Young people allowed themselves to be used because they had no jobs. Unemployment has also been a key factor for our under-development as young people. This is the most important issue for me."
While this election has, so far, been generally peaceful, the issue of election violence remains an extremely important topic and one which we discussed in another edition of Tok Bot Salone in Koidu City in eastern Sierra Leone earlier this month.
But what came across very clearly during this youth programme was young Sierra Leoneans’ desire to be heard, perhaps best expressed by university student Agatha Ada Levi: "As young people, what we need today is inclusion in decision-making. We believe that if we are included and allowed to participate in making decisions that affect us, our lives will be better. We know our problems and I think we are in a better position to articulate our issues. We need a space; we need inclusion; we need a voice."
With this special youth programme, I hope Tok Bot Salone played a small part in helping this start to happen.