Economic boom bypassing Liberia's now-grown boy soldiers

  • Article by: ELISE ZOKER and PAULINE BAX , Bloomberg News
  • Updated: July 6, 2013 - 6:49 PM

Liberian child soldiers, now adults, find themselves with no way to participate in growing economy.

– Peter Toe used to carry an assault rifle in one of convicted warlord Charles Taylor’s “small-boy units” during Liberia’s civil war. Now he sleeps at a graveyard, robbing the dead and selling their coffins to earn money.

He’s one of tens of thousands of young people who are missing out on a growing postwar economy that has received $16 billion in foreign investment in mining and large-scale plantations since former banker Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female president in 2005.

“To survive, I sell the valuables we find on the dead,” Toe, who doesn’t know his exact age but reckons he’s in his 20s, said last month in an interview at the Palm Grove Cemetery here in the capital. “I am in this cemetery because I have nowhere to sleep and no food to eat.”

The 1989-2003 civil war displaced a majority of Liber­ians, gutted the economy and deprived a generation of teenagers of a basic education. Today, Liberia’s jobless youth still are considered a potential threat to stability, both domestically and in neighboring West African countries. Half of the total population of about 4 million is younger than 24, according to the 2010 Liberia Labor Survey.

As many as 15,000 boys and girls served as a child soldiers during Liberia’s conflict, according to the United Nations.

Boys were routinely drugged before being sent into combat, while girls were raped and often assigned to commanders as their “wives,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a February 2004 report. Many saw their families murdered and still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, making it difficult for them to resume normal lives.

Toe said he became a drug addict and “after the war I completely lost interest in education.”

When Johnson Sirleaf won re-election in 2011, she pledged to create at least 20,000 jobs a year and called young people “the driving force behind the nation’s development.”

Among the biggest investors in Liberia are ArcelorMittal, India’s Sesa Goa and China Union Investment, all seeking to mine iron ore, while Golden Veroleum, Sime Darby and Firestone Natural Rubber manage palm oil and rubber estates. Together they created 9,378 jobs last year, according to Labor Ministry statistics.

“It’s fair to say that the government has had far more success in attracting foreign direct investment than it has in creating jobs, and that the gap between these two is creating tensions and making the government increasingly unpopular,” Joseph Lake, an economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an interview from New York.

For Sando Ketter, 76, who stood sobbing over the grave of his wife at Palm Grove Cemetery, solutions for Liberia’s jobless youth can’t come soon enough.

“The very grave that was decorated with flowers when I buried my wife nine months ago is open and empty,” Ketter said. “We found only a heap of skeletal remains these hoodlums left near the grave without the casket. I can hardly believe it has come to this.”

Private industry won’t be able to meet the huge demand for work, and most people must rely on self-employment and odd jobs, Chris Blattman, assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Columbia University, said in an interview.

“Liberia is impeded by many things, but everything is costlier than it needs to be,” Blattman said. “A decade after the war, the government is still debating the location for a power plant. Private companies are not going to employ people unless the Liberian government can reduce the extremely high cost structures for firms,” many of which rely on gasoline-powered generators for electricity.

For years, Liberia had one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, an estimated 85 percent in 2003, according to the CIA World Factbook.

The country, founded by former U.S. slaves in 1847, doesn’t have functioning sewers, drinking water or a land line phone system. Garbage collection is nonexistent. Electricity is scarce, with the state-run Liberia Electricity Corp. supplying only 14,000 paying customers. Liberia’s per-capita gross domestic product of about $700 a year is the fifth-lowest of 229 countries ranked by the CIA World Factbook.

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