Mano River Youth: From Warriors to Peace Builders; for the First Time since the Conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire Began, the Youth of the Region Are Being Mobilised to Play an Effective Role in Peace Building and Development. Baffour Ankomah Reports from Conakry, Guinea, on the Programme Sponsored by the Mano River Union (MRU), Ecowas and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

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"Let us be clear. Half-educated youth with no prospect of being integrated into a better future is a prescription for disaster. If young people do not have a stake in the existing social and political order, if they do not feel that there is a way forward for them, why should they sacrifice today for a better tomorrow? Why should they have an interest in protecting the stability and social safety of that system?", Dr Ismail Serageldin, vice-president of the World Bank in 1999 said at a youth forum organised that year.

These words--quoted to great effect by Musa Salah, a consultant for the UNECA's Youth for Leadership Programme, at another youth forum in the Guinean capital, Conakry (10-12 January 2005)--have become the raison d'etre of an ambitious project to empower the youth in the conflict-ridden countries of West Africa.

The forum, held under the broad theme, Integrating Youth in Peace and Development Initiatives in the Mano River Basin Countries and Cote d'Ivoire, is a joint regional initiative by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), the Mano River Union (consisting of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea), and UNDP Africa through its Regional Programme to Strengthen Capacities for Peace Building.

A delegation of 48 youths (12 each from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire) attended the forum. They were invited to concretise plans that had been formulated over the past year via two previous youth conferences held to galvanise support for the youth to confront the crises in their countries. The Conakry forum, the third in the series, followed extensive consultations by the MRU, Ecowas and UNDP Africa, with a sample of youth leaders in the four countries.

The consultations revealed a simmering bitterness among the youth, one of whom, from Liberia, commented: "In the ongoing peace process, we are not asked nor heard; yet we are supposed to be the future."

This comment, according to Dr Sam G. Amoo, director of the UNDP programme "cannot be challenged".

"In most peace processes," said Dr Amoo who gave the keynote speech at the opening of the Conakry forum, "the voice of the young is normally neglected, negotiations are held over their heads, they are relegated to the margins of the reconciliation processes; and their needs are often not taken into account in the reconstruction of the economy and society. As a result, post-conflict periods tend to be highly unsatisfactory for the youth, pushing many of them into criminality and all of them into insecurity."

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Speaking on behalf of Abdoulie Janneh, head of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, Dr Amoo contrasted his own "happy" youth spent in the tranquillity of West Africa of the early 1950s with the hopelessness facing the youth in the sub-region today.

"For someone who grew up as a very hopeful youth in the West Africa region," Dr Amoo began, "it would only be appropriate and indeed human to start on a personal note. Please allow me to reminisce.

"Liberia was the place our aunties used to travel to, to buy goods for their market stalls in the town of Tarkwa, Ghana, my hometown. While many of our classmates' families had migrated to Liberia as fishing families, the workforce at Takoradi harbour [also in Ghana] were mostly Krus from Liberia.

"Mrs Cole, the redoubtable headmistress of the prestigious Catholic Girls School at Tarkwa, was from Freetown, Sierra Leone. She had a group of friends who were always in European dress and hats at church, and they all spoke English, unlike our aunties. Freetown must be brimming with educated ladies and gentlemen, we concluded. If one needed any further proof, we could look at Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah's first cabinet--three were graduates from Fourah Bay College in Freetown."

Dr Amoo continued: "Part of my family was in Cote d'Ivoire. Occasionally, our cousins would visit from Abidjan. …