Controlling the ‘ticking timebombs’: motorbikes and social order in Freetown

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LogoIn March this year, Olusegun Obasanjo referred to unemployed youth as a ‘ticking bomb’. Here, Luisa Enria looks at similar characterisations of youth unemployment in Sierra Leone and asks what the unintended consequences might be of adopting this rhetoric. Luisa is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford.



With unrest spreading across North Africa and the Middle East, youth unemployment and the frustrations of a ‘lost generation’ have hit the headlines as key drivers of instability. In Sierra Leone, these concerns are old news. Most mainstream narratives of the country’s 10-year civil war link unemployment or, more broadly, lack of economic opportunities very closely to the descent into conflict.

Although the causes of the war are debated and contested, official interpretations, as exemplified by the Truth and Reconciliation Report, argue that a ‘crisis of youth’ was a central cause of violence. The TRC states, for instance: ‘As the conflict arrived, youths used brutality not to prop up the political elites, but to accumulate resources and power that had been denied to them previously, attacking the very foundations of the elites’ society’[1]. These youths, the Report argues, were primarily ‘marginalised, uneducated and unemployed’[2].

As the war ended in 2002, government and donor policies focused on identifying and addressing the causes of war to prevent a relapse into conflict in the future. Economically excluded youth played a central role in their narrative of  what went wrong and, therefore, what needed to be fixed. The United Nations, for example, through the Peacebuilding Commission, expanded the notion of what ‘peacebuilding’ meant to include development. They justified the move by showing that underdevelopment could be linked directly to the eruption of violence and, in Sierra Leone’s case, they stated that ‘failures in development policy and practice have been at the root of the past conflict’[3].  The issue of employment fitted very neatly into this approach, and the UN justified youth employment programming as a peacebuilding initiative by arguing that idle youth posed a risk to the country’s recovery. Similarly, the World Bank has recently funded a short-term Cash-for-Work scheme, which is presented as an emergency measure to prevent social crisis. The implementation of pro-employment policies are grounded in what is ultimately a fairly simplistic assumption that there is a direct link between labour market experiences and patterns of political engagement, which makes employment a security issue. In the words of one state official, ‘the country is on a time-bomb, the youth are just waiting for the slightest opportunity’.

 There are several reasons why this narrative is so attractive. Firstly, for agencies like the UN, keeping notions of  ‘peacebuilding’ fairly ambiguous is useful, because it allows them to facilitate the cooperation of diverse security and development actors in a post-conflict context. The argument that unemployment will lead to social breakdown and a return to war also adds urgency to the employment problem and, in doing so, gives it a great deal of political capital: Promises of employment become  easy political point-scoring during election periods, regardless of concerns for sustainability or potential for success of particular projects.

Arguably, however, this securitisation of employment creates more problems than it solves. To begin with, in reality we understand very little about the channels and mechanisms through which economic exclusion leads to participation in violence. Secondly, as employment becomes securitised, all those who remain un- or under-employed are effectively criminalised as ‘ticking bombs’. This can have some significant unintended consequences, which were recently illustrated by the clash between the Sierra Leone government and a group of marginal youth over a city beautification project.

On the 6th of January 2013 Operation WID came into action in Sierra Leone’s capital. The Operation was intended to deal with Waste management, Improvement of the roads and Decongestion. The Operation targeted, amongst others, motorbike-taxi riders (okada riders) who were banned from Freetown’s Central Business District, a significant blow to their daily survival. The Director of Traffic justified the operation by arguing that: ‘The country is overwhelmed with lawlessness and indiscipline’[4]. Indeed, this Operation was widely understood not only as a beautification project but, more fundamentally, as controlling what was perceived as lawless behaviour in the city, namely the marginal livelihood strategies of residents that were seen as dangerous. Operation WID is an interesting example because it shows the complexity of the current employment discourse in Sierra Leone. The problem, as perceived by the authorities, was not just complete idleness, which in any case is close to impossible for the urban poor in the absence of social security. Specific kinds of livelihoods like okada riding also came to symbolise the risks that were posed by a youthful population, primarily male, who were not  ‘properly’ employed.

What is it then about okada-riders that presents a threat to social stability? In a context where unemployment, as per official definitions, is not really possible, the narratives that securitize unemployment get applied to the economically marginal. Okada riding is portrayed as what unemployed young men do to make a living in the absence of ‘proper’ work— it becomes an example of the dangerous things that people do if they are not effectively employed. These riders are construed in public imagery as lawless, badly dressed, as causing most of the accidents on the roads, and so on. They are seen primarily as ex-combatants, which in some cases is true, as the failures of DDR have pushed many to find alternative livelihoods. The perception of the percentage of okada riders who are ex-fighters however is wildly exaggerated in public perceptions (passers-by will tell you it is up to 90%), showing how this categorisation can be used to class the riders as ‘ticking bombs’ who are not reintegrated and pose a threat to society. Needless to say, the Operation was fairly counterintuitive, as the city council was effectively making marginal youth, which it classified as dangerous, even poorer. Yet, Operation WID very vividly reflected the assumptions that underlay the policy language around employment. Even more significant, however, were the riders’ responses to the Operation, as they gave an insight into how young people engage with this exclusionary rhetoric.

The day the ban was imposed, the Up Gun okada parking ground at the edges of Freetown’s crowded East End was teeming with heated riders debating the Operation and considering their options. There were a variety of responses, all of which reflected important aspects of how the employment debate is negotiated by those whom it impacts directly. Firstly, most riders expressed their frustration at the restriction by articulating a claim for citizenship. ‘We are Sierra Leoneans, not foreigners’, many argued as evidence that the government should not be taking away their livelihoods. Making a citizenship claim however, interestingly created some paradoxes for the riders. Because Operation WID was presented as a way of making Freetown more developed, opposing it would meant that riders were framed as ‘anti-progress’ and this, in turn, would have undermined their claim to be seen as patriotic citizens not to be marginalised and excluded. Mohamed, a 25-year old rider, for example argued:  ‘I don’t see the restriction as a problem; when you watch movies from Ghana and Nigeria, the streets are nice and ordered’. Therefore, the riders often ended up agreeing with the government that their way of making a living was not ideal, but that no alternatives were being provided in terms of ‘proper’ employment, and the government was therefore failing in its responsibility to the youth.

There were however also some more concerning argumentations. These kinds of responses focused primarily on violence and essentially appropriated the language of social threat associated with marginal economic activity. Those who had in fact fought the war, for example, reclaimed their identities as ex-fighters as soon as the Operation was put into place. Previously they would have been more likely to keep this identity to themselves, or at least not to identify themselves primarily in those terms. It was common to hear threats that, because they had known how to fight before, if their livelihoods were cut off it would not be difficult to take up arms again. This kind of rhetoric was used also by non-combatant youth, who also exploited the perceived connection between unemployment and violence, saying that making them poorer than they already were would simply push them into criminal activity or spark an uprising. The language of violence, it seems, offered an effective way for these young people to force their way into a debate from which they felt excluded.

Therefore, the securitisation of the employment debate, while perhaps facilitating coherent policy-making, has complex and unintended consequences. As negotiations between authority and marginal youth over Operation WID show, this securitised language is not only problematic because it criminalises youth, but also because this criminalisation can be appropriated as a bargaining tool by people who have been the subject of debates of employment and violence, not participants in them.

[1] Witness to Truth: Report of the Sierra Leone Truth & Reconciliation Commission Volume 3B, p.345
[2] ibid. p 360
[3] Peacebuilding Commission Sierra Leone Country Specific Meeting (2007) “Summary Record of the Sierra Leone Configuration First Meeting”
[4] AWOKO, 9th January 2013

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