For the past two months, there has been an incessant chorus of a generational change in Liberia sang by many youthful enthusiasts. The initial intention of those resounding this chorus was to pressure Madam Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (who had been re-elected in a run-off poll in November 2011) to ditch out a huge chunk of cabinet portfolios to “young people” but this has changed to a quest for “radical” reforms of our system of administration and leadership.
Even prior to the emergence of generational change activists, the president had made it clear during her re-election campaign that youth empowerment (skills development and job creation) will be cardinal to her second term leadership as part of a broader strategy of lifting Liberians out of poverty. As a matter of fact, Madam President has promised to create twenty thousand jobs annually in this regard although she’s yet to present her job creation strategy to the Liberian people. Job creation for young people must be part of a wider framework of labor market reforms which will need series of policy interventions.
Despite the loud cry for generational change by its enthusiasts, there is a growing number of both young people and old folks who hold the viewpoint that there is no intellectual foundation for generational change (in the context of its agitators) as it lacks empirical reference in history. They argue that youth have always played a pivotal role in the affairs of the state. Foreign Affairs minister designate Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan summarizes the argument at a recent graduation of the Liberia International Christian College in Ganta, Nimba when he asked: “How many Liberians remember that their first President, Joseph Jenkins Roberts was just 38 when he became President in 1847; or that W.V.S Tubman was only 48 when he became President in 1944 or that Charles Taylor was just 49 when he became President in 1997 or that Samuel Doe was only 35 when “elected” President”. This group has argued for an evolutionary and smooth transition from one generation to another as happened when young people acquire academic credentials and exhibit good morality and high productivity when given the chance to serve in any capacity. They reject a sudden institutional change in which young people (as in a revolution) take over all key functionaries of government.
But what are the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the divide and what do we really need at this critical time in Liberia?? Proponents of the generational change argument have got some good points diluted by the highly-charged political face of their position. The fact of the matter is that young people who have the requisite credentials and minimum experience must be given the chance to take the center stage in the affairs of the state. For the regime of Madam Sirleaf, the presence of youthful individuals in her government like Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan, Amara Konneh, Binyan Kesseley, among others and the invaluable contributions they’ve made to the post-conflict recovery of Liberia only strengthens the argument for more opportunities to be awarded to young people who are competent. This is a classic example of opportunities meeting prepared young people.
Alternatively, the old folks have got a significant role to play in making our country a better place. They bring to the table a vital element which is only attained over a period of time: experience. The likes of Dr. Florence Chenoweth, Miatta Beysolow, Christiana Tarr, among other older folks have skills that are vital to our country’s progress and must therefore be harnessed. Dr. Chenoweth can contribute far better to agriculture research and training the new breed of agriculturists in the country by heading the College of Agriculture at the University of Liberia. She’ll bring home her long years of experience in academic research and experience working with international organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Christian Tarr can serve well as full-time lecturer at the Louise Arthur Grimes School of Law and legal consultancy to gov’t litigation and law reform teams. Miatta Beysolow can take up assignment too in academia and the board of the chamber of commerce. My choice of the various portfolios for these distinguished citizens stems from the idea that he who has long years of experience should play an advisory role. I doubt whether Madam President can look up to Rev. Emmanuel Bowier or Carlton Karpeh for cabinet roles though they have the credentials and professional experience.
So, the downside of those who bear the thought of the superiority of the old folks on the basis of education and experience is their exuberance and unrelenting cling to both education and experience as pre-conditions for eminent cabinet positions rejecting the role youthfulness plays in leadership and innovation. Disgustingly, some of these guys have persistently pushed what I consider the generational argument: agitating for youth empowerment when they were young in the 70s and 80s but now vociferously arguing for old-age dominance of leadership not mainly on the basis of academic credentials but on the basis of experience which only comes with the passage of time.
But what should young people and their activists be pushing for???? The answer is clear: GENERATIONAL DEVELOPMENT. In order to strategically position this generation of young people to withstand and compete in this fast-changing world, we need the requisite training in every spheres of society.
Frankly, the generational change pundits have neglected this very crucial issue: the welfare and development of the silent majority of young people who have got no life skills and cannot afford units to call on talk shows to present their concerns. In fact, in our agitations for change in society, we must never loss focus on the issues plaguing this category of young people. I’m a proud member of this class of young people. And my race through high school and university is an enduring example of what can be achieved by a young man with perseverance. In fact since the activists are grossly ignoring the issues that affect the majority of the young people in the country by pushing the generational change argument in a parochial style (wanting jobs for qualified young people), it is highly unlikely or at least unclear whether youth in key leadership role can offer something different in up scaling the broad-based youth agenda. The intra-generational hate perceived to be existing among young people as highlighted by Min. Ngafuan and buttressed by former minister Bropleh ignites a new strand of the debate. As relevant as it maybe, every generation has got its own episodes of intra-generational hate and this is an unwarranted distraction from the core issues of pushing for capacity development and job creation for young people.
The president has made a laudable move by placing youth issues (atleast now in theory) on top of her government’s priority in the 2nd term. Over the coming weeks, the government is expected to present its policy document and execution frameworkfor the twenty thousand (20,000) jobs annually promised by the president during her campaign. Those who seek to passionately see young people empowered and play key roles in society must seize on this opportunity and refocus the activism on capacity development and job creation for ALL. For the argument of empowering youth with education and minimum experience, though relevant, has lost resonance.
Author Info: The author is a development economist and works as a technical advisor in the Department of Budget at the Ministry of Finance.