In his first town-hall meeting in London, organized by the Open Government Initiative, Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma spoke convincingly of his "clearly defined road map" for the country's socioeconomic development. But he fell short of addressing issues on the country's youth. For the youth, this was a job poorly done.
Sierra Leone has been blighted with darkness over the years, an electricity problem made worse by the civil war that hampered efforts to tackle it. Although there is a long way to go, the country's electricity supply has been improving under Koroma's government. Within 90 days of Koroma taking office, electricity output increased from 5 megawatts to 25 megawatts. He also successfully persuaded donor countries to contribute to the $42 million needed to complete the first phase of the Bumbuna hydroelectric project, aimed at generating a 50-megawatt electrical supply. This is a noteworthy progress. Koroma's predecessor, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, failed to deliver this despite numerous pledges.
Additionally, elderly women are currently being trained so that they can install solar panels in their villages, an initiative that aims to transform lives in those villages by making electricity affordable. This is done in conjunction with the Barefoot College, an Indian College that offers "basic services and solutions to problems (such as solar energy and water) in rural communities with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable." The government's plan is to provide electricity to all district headquarters and towns across the country, said Koroma. He also talked about his plans to complete the subsequent phases of Bumbuna, under the project heading "Bumbuna 2," which will significantly increase the supply of electricity to the entire country.
A number of road networks linking key towns have been constructed. The Kenema-Kailahun, an 87-kilometer stretch of road is one of them. A road linking Sierra Leone to neighbouring Guinea has also been completed. It now takes under four hours to travel. Previously it took twice that time to travel from Sierra Leone to Guinea. Thirty other road-construction projects are also underway. A "road policy" to ensure quality and safety standards in road construction across the country was recently instituted.
Due to inadequate health facilities and medicine, undertrained medical practitioners and unaffordable healthcare, the country's maternal and child mortality rates
have been among the highest in the world. In response, Koroma launched free healthcare, mainly for pregnant women and children under five, a plan funded chiefly by the United Kingdom and the World Bank. More than 40,000 women's lives have been saved since free healthcare was created. According to some reports, mortality rates involving complex pregnancy cases have dropped by 60 percent, and the malaria casualty rate for children treated in hospitals has also dropped by 85 percent.
However, Koroma noted that the plan has encountered a number of problems. "There are people who are stealing drugs from health centers and pharmacies," he said, adding that drugs that were supposed to be free are been sold in some clinics. There is also the problem of brain drain, as the country's trained doctors and nurses move overseas to countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. But Koroma said he was determined to expand free healthcare to other vulnerable people, including the elderly and the poor, and Sierra Leoneans must help in this effort.
According to the Doing Business Index, Sierra Leone has been credited as the easiest place to start a business in the sub region, an indication of remarkable progress for the country. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, an organization that promotes good governance and effective leadership in sub-Saharan countries, showed that this year Sierra Leone had improved in areas such as "personal safety" and "rights," where it gained the highest ranking. The country now has more than 40 newspapers and radio stations.
Koroma has enjoyed popularity both at home and abroad, but one demographic that has been left outside of the progress is the youth. Children (under 15 years) and the youth (defined in Sierra Leone as someone between 15 and 34) comprise approximately 75 percent of the country's population. For them, regretfully, the president's road map is not translating into tangible goals.
This section of the country's population faces a major socioeconomic exclusion, leaving most of them extremely frustrated. There is high youth unemployment and underemployment in the country. Despite U.N. officials saying that youth unemployment requires special attention, the problem is yet to be given the priority it urgently deserves.
Last year the World Bank committed $20 million to support job creation for the youth. President Koroma has established the National Youth Commission, created to empower the youth to develop their potential for national development. Yet, these programs have yet to translate into action that constructively reduces youth unemployment and poverty.
The education sector is failing the country's young people, too. Students today are poorly equipped compared to previous generations. Some graduates are coming out of universities barely able to read and write. In fact, for over a month the country's main university, Fourah Bay College (FBC) has still not reopened since it closed for the summer holiday, due to a strike by lecturers over poor salaries. A female FBC student, who spoke to me anonymously, said, "We are suffering … and the Minister of Education doesn't care about the students."
Koroma said, "Only when we guarantee the future of the [youth] can we guarantee our country's sustainability." He was right. But, is he going to translate this into action? The children and youth want to see more being done for them. Personally, I feel that our leaders are far from doing enough. Do we really need reminding that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow?
Unisa Dizo-Conteh is the president of Young Leaders-Sierra Leone (www.ylsl.org), an organization that promotes youth empowerment and participation in nation building, serving Sierra Leone's youth at home and abroad.