Liberia: ‘We Are No Longer Political Pawns’

Youth leaders commit to violence-free elections in the historic border town of Butuo, Nimba County

…. Young people denounce violence ahead of historic October Polls

Garmonbloe Saytee was only six years old when rebels invaded his family in Grand Bassa County in 1994 during the Liberian civil war. His mother and father were killed in his presence, and their village burned down.

“They cut off my mother’s breast and chopped her with a cutlass from the back, and she bled to death,” Saytee, who grimaced continually, apparently as a result of uncontrollable internal pain, tells the Daily Observer in an interview in Buchanan, Grand Bassa County. “My father wanted to give the rebels goats and money so that they could leave his wife, but they refused. They said that they wanted his wife. He was also shot, and they put fire to our hut. The fire led to our entire village burning down.”

Like Saytee, many Liberians who witnessed the atrocities of the war do not want to see a repeat of the carnage that engulfed the country for nearly two decades. The violence that occasioned the over 14 years of crisis, though a making of a few politicians, it was fueled and driven on the backs of intoxicated and drugged youth.

Politicians recognize the nuisance value of young people so well that during elections, they become the toast of every candidate, who seeks to mobilize them into dangerous and sinister teams ready to die in doing their bidding of scattering the electoral process or defending it.

“We won’t allow young people to kill themselves for the selfish interests of politicians anymore,” Banica Elliot, the president of the Federation of Liberia Youth (FLY) said in a recent interview. “We want to ensure that these elections are violence free. The youth have been used as tools of violence for too long, and this has to end.”

FLY, as the umbrella organization of young people across the country, has been ensuring that young people stay away from violence and engender issue-based debates during the course of the electoral process.

In what could be described as a historic move, Elliot and her team initiated a landmark peace agreement, which youth leaders from several major political parties signed in a powerful display of commitment to a violence free electoral process.

The youth leaders converged in the historic town of Butuo, Nimba County, to seal the agreement—known as the Butuo Declaration.

The Declaration, a prototype or the young people’s version of the Farmington River Declaration, symbolizes their dedication to peace and stability in the nation after being used for decades by politicians as tools of violence.

Photo 2: Banica Elliot, the president of the Federation of Liberia Youth (FLY)

“The signing of the declaration was not merely an act of symbolism; it was a powerful testament from youth to steer their nation away from the precipice of violence and towards a path of lasting harmony,” Elliot says. “Signing the Declaration is a resolute promise to uphold peace, democracy and to never allow their energy to be used for violence again.

She says young people will never allow themselves to be used by politicians again. “It will no longer be the case. The young people are no longer tools of violence for selfish politicians,” she says. 

Signing the peace agreement in Butuo is historic, as the town is known among Liberians as the cradle of violence. It was from there that the infamous rebel invasion that killed hundreds of thousands of people was born. That violent rebellion, launched by former President Charles Taylor on December, 24, 1989, has since infested the country with violence, making young people the prime enablers and victims.

“The Butuo Declaration serves as a poignant reminder of the pain and loss that resulted from the events of 1989, when the hopes and dreams of a generation were shattered by a brutal conflict that ravaged the country and claimed countless lives,” Elliot says. “This is why we took the young people there so that they cannot just connect with history, and veer away from it.” 

It is no secret that violence has marred previous elections, with young people often behind incidents due to high rates of unemployment and high levels of political misinformation and intolerance.

Many say that the youth have become agitated due to years of neglect enhanced by years of harsh economic conditions and high level of insecurity — a situation that some believe have worsened since the President George Weah led Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) government.  

Tension has been building up in the country since the ascendancy of the George Weah led Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) government in 2018. There have been a series of protests that have taken place across the country, notables being the historic June 7, and Bring Back Our Money protests that saw thousands of young people take to the streets to agitate against the country’s economic and security challenges. 

Tension has also been high since the processes leading to the 2023 presidential and legislative elections began, especially the voter registration exercise and the start of the campaign period. 

But a few community based organizations have begun engaging young people in an effort to dissuade them from engaging in acts of violence. 

“We want to support the youth to disengage from violence this time around. They cannot continue to be used as political pawns, Emmanuel Kollie, founder of the Kakata based Youth United for Positive Change, says. “We saw how the war damaged the future of us young people. We do not have to allow ourselves to be used by politicians to cause trouble because when trouble comes it is the youth that suffer the most. It is our future that is wasted.”

Kollie says some political leaders are seeking violence by rhetoric that they are spurring daily. “It is against this backdrop that we are targeting hotspots for violence where we can engage young people on the issues of peace, misinformation and unethical campaigning,” he says. “We all know that the political leaders will spur the rhetoric and when it comes to focus they want the youth to execute the violence. This is what we are preaching against.” 

Kollie describes the October 10 polls as very critical; adding that it is high time young people put away violence and unite to forge collective aspirations and goals. “We have to look among the candidates and see which of them have the cause of the young people at the center of their agenda. We have to rally around people who will prioritize our interests,” he says. 

Esther Williams, a resident of Buchanan, agrees with Kollie. She says young people have an incredible demographic advantage and, if they choose to, can decide the outcome of the election in any way they deem favorable to Liberia.

The most recent National Elections Commission (NEC) voter’s registration data suggests that youths have the power to decide the outcomes of the elections. “We have the power to own the whole cake but here we are prostrating to politicians for crumbs of the cake because we are a splintered group,” Williams says. “We should be dictating to the politicians what they should do and not the other way around.

The youth, she notes, are the most powerful voting bloc by number, but ironically they seem unaware of the power they have to decide the fate of power strugglers, and to reshape the political landscape of the country in the way they want it to be — a feat that can only be achieved by youth coagulating into one potent and unique power bloc in the Liberian firmament.

Williams, however, agrees that this dream can only be achieved in a violence free society. 

So as Liberians prepare to vote, many, including Elliot, Kollie and Williams, are hoping that the process will be peaceful.

This story was a collaboration with Accountability Lab/NED through the CVE Project. The funder had no say in the story’s content.