Supporters of the Sierra Leone’s People’s Party (SLPP) are giving high praises to President Julius Maada Bio’s new Cabinet for having the country’s largest representation of ministers under the age of 45. Among this new generation of talented Sierra Leoneans are Salima Monorma Bah, the first Minister of Communication, Technology and Innovation, Chernor Bah, Minister of Communications and Civic Education, and Dr. Haja Ramatuilai Wurie, Minister of Technical and Higher Education, and former Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education and now Chief Minister, Dr. David Moinina Sengeh.
An increased number of young people, including young women, in Bio’s second-term government is a national achievement that sets a precedent in Africa, where a small group of old political leaders have marginalized the voices of the continent’s majority youth population. But, progress towards social transformation in Sierra Leone can only be achieved if these appointments of young ministers are met with a substantive understanding of challenges facing Sierra Leonean children and youth from the perspectives of young people themselves.
From September 2020 to December 2021, I conducted an extensive study across fifteen government schools to understand the experiences of students who were targeted recipients of President Bio’s first flagship Free Quality School Education Program introduced in 2018. Through immersive research, which included volunteer teaching in one primary school in the capital city and two senior secondary schools in the northern province, I heard directly from students their views and concerns around national issues such as education, politics, gender equality, and employment.
Prioritizing Student Success Over Party Interests
A major concern for students and teachers was the politicization of education in Sierra Leone. Students were very aware of longstanding political tensions between SLPP and the opposition All People’s Congress (APC), which have had negative implications on the education sector through the implementation of conflicting education policies. Progress towards resolving political differences around education sector planning was seemingly made back in April when Parliament voted to pass the Basic and Senior Secondary Education Act into law.
But controversy over the June election results has led to members of APC boycotting Parliament for the past two months, leaving much uncertainty about the status of education reform in Sierra Leone. In addition, the SLPP government’s flagship program for the next five years has changed from education to agriculture and food security, which raises concerns about the future national and international spending in the education sector in Sierra Leone. In light of these challenges, it is imperative that this new Cabinet approaches education as a non-partisan issue and prioritizes student success over party interests when implementing new policies and programs.
Gender Equality is a Challenging but Achievable Goal
Gender equality was another important issue that came up in discussions with students. Despite numerous gender reforms and community sensitization programs, many schoolgirls shared that they or their friends continued to experience sexual and gender-based violence in their schools, homes, and communities. “The First Lady has passed a law that says, ‘Hands Off Our Girls’. That a child below 18 years, you are not supposed to tamper with her. But I will just say, it’s just a law. But it’s not going through because you can see lots of it happening. Teenage pregnancy is plenty” (female student, 17).
But young people were still hopeful about the prospects of gender equality, which many thought could be possible with the inclusion of more women in government. Female students were eager to participate in politics, stating that “nowadays many young women coming up have a passion for politics” (female student, 17). Male students also envisioned a future in Sierra Leone where a woman could be president. “If we like her, we’ll vote for her” (male student, 16).
As more students are taking an interest in politics, increasing youth civic participation should be a priority for this new Cabinet. One approach to engaging students is for politicians to host more public forums and public debates at secondary schools across the country. These events can present opportunities for young to actively participate in policy discussions around gender equality and other topics and hold elected leaders accountable for the issues they have promised to solve.
Investing in Diverse Careers for Youth
Unemployment was a recurring issue facing students, especially those in their final year of senior secondary school who were considering their post-graduation plans. According to the International Organization for Migration, almost 60 per cent of young people in Sierra Leone are unemployed. While the typical Sierra Leonean parent may desire for their children to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers, the country’s current education and economic reality make these professional aspirations simply unattainable for the majority of young people. Young people need to be introduced to more ideas of career success and the government should invest in a diverse range of employment opportunities for youth that includes skilled labour, entrepreneurship, and creative arts.
Creating the Futures Young People Want
By no means should children and youth have to carry the responsibility for national development in Sierra Leone. However, the appointment of the young Cabinet presents a unique opportunity for young people to actively participate in creating the future that they want. One can only hope that celebrations of a youthful Cabinet are met with a genuine commitment to engaging the voices of children and youth on various social and political issues and actually responding to their concerns.
Dr. Christiana Kallon Kelly is a Chancellor Postdoctoral Scholar in the Department of African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @cskallon