Tuesday, April 7, 2009



I was pleased and honored to have received a note of invitation from the Youth United for Change to present a paper on a very important and challenging topic that has a resounding relevance in contemporary political discourses and the reconstruction o9f our war-torn nation.

Upon receipt of the invitation, several thoughts began to pierce my mind. First, I was flattered by the invitation considering my limitations and the abundance of knowledgeable and resourceful men and women in Liberia including many prominent youth activities.

Second, I began to wonder as to why a specific topic considering democracy and youth must be a subject of the discourse, and particularly assigned to me.
Having undergone several thoughts and reflections in which my memories recalled the participation of young people in governance, and the terrible consequences that can be visited upon the young people when the society breaks into anarchy and the machineries of government cease to functionally impact their lives, I was quick to realize the essence of the blending. That was what I think liberated me from what I earlier saw as a mental incarceration.

However, it is of significant interest and a resounding prospect for progressive developments in Liberia to see young people in the midst of socio-economic challenges, mobilizing themselves into civil society groups to find alternative solutions to the complex political and socio-economic problems facing the country. Indeed this is a laudable venture which must be encouraged and promoted across the country.

When I received the invitation calling me to present on the topic “The importance of Democracy and youth Development”, I saw it as a broad topic that stretches beyond the horizon with academic and scholarship potentials to demand a global understanding. Again considering our immediate history and national demands as a post-conflict state in still in transition, I thought it necessary to narrow the topic to a particular setting using a case study.

I therefore seek your indulgence my distinguish audience and organizers to permit me to modify the topic as “The Importance of Democracy and Youth Development in Post-conflict Liberia”.

According to experts of international relations, from 1989-2003, the Liberian state ceased to exist as a functional sovereign authority with monopoly over the use of violence. The state deeply sank into terror when rebel forces or illegal citizen organizations under the guise of Liberation groups competed with the state on the use of violence. Liberia therefore became qualified to be listed in the category of ‘failed-states’.

It is important to briefly retrospect on the undemocratic nature of governance in Liberia that opened the precipice of grief, mass frustration and distrust, and finally the violence and the civil war.

The history of governance in Liberia is replete with a tradition of undemocratic practices and imperial leadership. For over 100 years an ethic minority of Americo –Liberian built an absolute and hegemonic control over all facets of the Liberian society, from the politics to the economy and to the social institutions
This kept the country polarized with fears because the vast majority of indigenous African ethnic groups were kept marginalized, disenfranchised, economically dispossessed, and were reduced to subservient levels.

The challenge to the autocracy was built by young Liberians who organized various pressure groups to demand change, reforms and equitable distributions of the nation’s wealth.

Finally, the Americo-Liberian hegemony was deposed by another group of young Liberians enlisted in the armed forces through a bloody coup. It was a sad day in history, because coup d’état in all its forms, is illegal, unconstitutional, barbaric, and a recipe for war and instability.

The history of activism, agitation, and the 1980 coup d’état tells that the youths have been actively involved with the nation’s body-politics, and have been the main engine of change in the country.

After years of governance failure, civil war and mass social dislocation, Liberia is today called a “shadow state”. A shadow state is a state that is fragile with high potential of descending into chaos. For Liberia to move to an ideal state status, with a dependent economy, venerated status in the international community, the need for democratic governance and empowerment of young people must be considered san quo non in our national development agenda.

Democracy must be the art and not and just word of the government and people. But what is democracy. Democracy is a concept that most African leaders have not understood. It is a concept still misunderstood and misused in a time when dictatorships and autocratic regimes have attempted to claim popular support by pinning democratic labels upon themselves. In their self-delusions of running democratic governments, we see massive under developments of the continent, pillage and plunder of resources, extreme poverty, and rigging of elections.

In the phrase of Abraham Lincoln, democracy is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”, but in a scholarly and theoretical definition, “democracy is a government by the people in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system”. Democracy goes beyond the periodic holding of elections. A viable democracy entails the unrestricted participation of the people in governance under a constitutional authority, equitable distribution of resources, and systems of transparency and accountability in governance. Liberia needs nothing less than the above to build its democratic credentials.

Democracy is therefore important in post conflict Liberia. It is only in a system of viable democracy that citizens freely work to reduce poverty and protect sustainable national development.

The young people that account for over sixty percent of the population of Liberia must be seen as the central focus in post conflict development initiative. The youths have participated in the country’s politics mainly during the years of war not as lead campaigners with conscious objectives but as agents or stooges fronting for the aggrandizement and interests of adults who had hidden economic and political agenda.

Empowering the young people must not in any way be reduced to a campaign of mobilizing political support this time around. It must be done with the clear objectives of meeting the national priorities of reconstruction and poverty reduction.

Youth development must entail the initiation of sustainable programs that will support both educational and economic empowerments. If the youths actively participate in the economy, it is most likely to have accelerated economic development, and a dramatic decline in crime, violence and instability in the country.

Youth development in post conflict Liberia is of relative importance to the building of a strong human security system. Security now no more depends on the formation of large armies with sophisticated weaponry, but the protection of individuals from violent comes, economic exploitations and social injustices. This is a new concept called Human security. This includes protecting people from hunger, disease, and natural disasters.

If the young people who are the reservoir of the productive energy of our society are economically and educationally empowered, those vice that threaten our human security will be drastically reduced.

Finally, my distinguished audience, I challenge you all to build a consciousness of national service and take on self initiative in the communities. See the nation as your own, the government as your making, work to promote the nation by respecting and supporting the government, demand your rights peacefully and be able to exercise your supreme power legally. Through this we can together build durable democracy, and provide development alternatives that will give the young people multiple options to better living standards.

In the Cause of Democracy and Social Justice, The Pen Shall Never Run Dry

Another Perspective on Liberia

By Heidi Baumgartner
Hunter College High School, New York

Leaving Roberts International Airport after a long flight from frigid New York City to Liberia, faint shadows of the landscape were all I could see of the new continent I had just landed on. It was a late hour of a humid February night when I arrived in West Africa with my teacher and one of his former students. For the next ten days I would be aiding them with humanitarian work, and exploring a place that was like nothing I had seen before. It was my first time in a third-world country and had no idea of what to expect in an area that only a few short years prior was a war zone.
An unexpected lack of running water and a broken generator awaited us at the house in Congo Town where we stayed that night. These conditions are commonplace to the majority of Liberians, but I admittedly was in a bit of a shock at having to grope my way through the darkness to the bed that the three of us had to share. Never having been deprived of running water, electricity and privacy, which as an American I had always considered essential resources that one could not live without, I was awakened to the fact that what I had always taken for granted could be considered a set of luxuries to others.

The closest previous contact I had with hardship was through my mother’s stories of growing up in impoverished Communist Poland after World War II. Her descriptions of the abject conditions she had to endure as a child were vivid in my mind as I thought about what I would find life to be like in this part of the world that was new to me, which was also still emerging from terrible civil conflict. But how similar could modern Liberia be to an Eastern European country fifty years ago?
My mother recollects much about the lasting effects of the war that ravaged the country. As has happened in Liberia, many buildings and roads in Poland were destroyed; centralized electricity and running water disappeared in many parts of the country. Water had to be carried from the bottom of the hill that my mother’s family lived on, up to the second floor of the building. The first floor was used as a schoolhouse, where seven large classes were fit into four rooms. Her father—my grandfather—was among the first group of college graduates in the country to receive a master’s degree after the war. He subsequently became a schoolteacher in an effort to contribute to the rebuilding of Poland. However, it was difficult. Several million Polish people had died in the war, the economy was destroyed, and the capital city was leveled to the ground in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising. There was no foreign aid and no U.N. assistance, leaving the ineffectual and corrupt Communist system imposed by the Soviet Union to cause far more harm than help. Soviet Communist propaganda was heard on the radio, newspapers were censored by the government, and political opponents were thrown into jail.

Under the Communist system, almost nothing was available in stores and there were few opportunities for employment, so my mother and her sister had to help their parents by picking mushrooms and berries and selling them in the market. Army trenches still scarred the land in Poland, and my mother remembers having to walk through them when she went to the forest. Fragments of grenades and land mines scattered the ground; reports about accidents caused by explosions of old undetonated mines were common. In the schoolhouse, one day a boy brought a grenade that he had found. To everyone’s horror, the teacher saw it was undetonated and called the police.

In Liberia I also saw remnants from the war, and problems obviating a system in need of improvement. The façades of government buildings were still visibly scorched, and sadly the people on the streets of Monrovia seemed far too accustomed to the many burning heaps of trash to do anything about them. Over the next week I experienced firsthand the necessity to bribe every police or customs officer to proceed without trouble. I drove on the potholed dirt highway from Monrovia to Ganta, breathing in the nauseating fumes from overfilled trucks that were sold to Liberia because they no longer passed emission requirements in other countries. I saw the omnipresent markets, with children desperately selling the few small items they had in front of them rather than going to school. Yet in the same way that Poland was able to recover from its problems, Liberia will be able to repair itself too.

Perhaps some lessons from Poland’s recovery can be applied to Liberia. I ask my mother what she thinks was the main factor that contributed to the recovery of Poland. The hard work of every single person, she says. Polish people took it unto themselves to make life better, not being able to rely on the government. Thus each and every person rebuilt his own house and planted a garden to grow food and save for the winter. Education was made a priority, as it was known that schooling was the key to advancement. The spectacular rebuilding of Warsaw became a source of national pride, with songs about progress becoming popular (such as the well-known song Budujemy nowy dom, or “We’re building a new house”) and schoolchildren learning about the hard work and strong values of the Polish people. And it was precisely these qualities of determination and self-help that allowed individuals better their lives, rebuild their homes and reestablish infrastructure. With time, Polish people regained independence from the oppressive Soviet rule and returned to a free market system.

And with time, Liberia will rise again. The aspirations, hard work, and strong morals of each individual can assure this success. What has been achieved since the war has been very significant, and the momentum of the progress will be sustained. Reconstruction will continue, and I hope that soon the streets of Monrovia will be cleaned. Maybe more people will take advantage of the relatively fertile soil of the region to grow their own gardens and lessen the burden of food costs on the family. I saw that Liberian students are motivated and well-disciplined, but those children who do not go to school need to be pushed into the classroom. Undaunted by the hindrances of ineffectual leadership, indifferent to the empty promises of foreign aid, and embracing the diversity of culture in Liberia to foster a sense of nationalism and unity, the Liberian people will sustain a lasting peace and prosperity.

About the Author
Heidi Baumgartner from Hunter College High School traveled to Liberia in February 2009 with her teacher Asumana Jabateh Randolph and his former student David Bauer, who is now studying at City University of New York. The group conducted workshops for science teachers about inexpensive laboratory technology that can be incorporated into the classroom. More information about their I-HELP Liberia Project can be found at http://www.ihelpliberia.com. The trip was also sponsored by LIMANY, the Liberian Mandingo Association of New York.