Liberia’s Ex-Boy Soldiers Who Rob Graves Miss Growth

Peter Toe used to carry an assault rifle in one of convicted warlord Charles Taylor’s “small boy units” during Liberia’s civil war. Now he sleeps at a graveyard robbing the dead and selling their coffins to earn money.

He’s one of tens of thousands of young people who’re missing out on a growing postwar economy that has received $16 billion in foreign investment in mining and large-scale plantations since former banker Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female president in 2005.

“To survive, I sell the valuables we find on the dead,” Toe, who doesn’t know his exact age but reckons he’s in his 20s, said last month in an interview at the Palm Grove Cemetery in downtown Monrovia, the capital. “I am in this cemetery because I have nowhere to sleep and no food to eat.”

The 1989-2003 civil war displaced a majority of Liberians, gutted the economy and deprived a generation of teenagers of a basic education. Today, Liberia’s jobless youth are still considered a potential threat to stability, both domestically and in neighboring West African countries. Half of the total population of about 4 million is younger than 24, according to the 2010 Liberia Labor Survey.

As many as 15,000 boys and girls served as a child soldiers during Liberia’s conflict, according to the United Nations.

Drugged Combatants

Boys were routinely drugged before being sent into combat, while girls were raped and often assigned to commanders as their “wives,” New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a February 2004 report. Many saw their families murdered and suffer post traumatic stress disorder, making it difficult for them to resume normal lives.

Toe said he became a drug addict and “after the war I completely lost interest in education.”

When Johnson Sirleaf won re-election in 2011, she pledged to create at least 20,000 jobs a year and called young people “the driving force behind the nation’s development.”

Among the biggest investors in Liberia are ArcelorMittal, India’s Sesa Goa Ltd. and China Union Investment Ltd., all of whom are seeking to mine iron ore with Sesa Goa saying in January it planned investment of $2.4 billion. Golden Veroleum Ltd., Sime Darby Bhd., and Firestone Natural Rubber Co. manage palm-oil and rubber estates. Together the companies created a total of 9,378 jobs in 2012, according to Labor Ministry statistics.

“It’s fair to say that the government has had far more success in attracting foreign direct investment than it has in creating jobs, and that the gap between these two is creating tensions and making the government increasingly unpopular,” Joseph Lake, an economist with the Economist Intelligence Unit, said in an interview from New York.

Desecrated Graves

For 76-year-old Sando Ketter, who stood sobbing over the grave of his wife at Palm Grove cemetery, solutions for Liberia’s jobless youth can’t come soon enough.

“The very grave that was decorated with flowers when I buried my wife nine months ago is open and empty,” Ketter said. “We found only a heap of skeletal remains these hoodlums left near the grave without the casket. I can hardly believe it has come to this.”

Private industry won’t be able to meet the huge demand for work, and most people must rely on self-employment and odd jobs, Chris Blattman, assistant professor of political science and international and public Affairs at Columbia University, said in an interview.

Investment Costs

“Liberia is impeded by many things, but everything is costlier than it needs to be,” Blattman said. “A decade after the war, the government is still debating the location for a power plant. Private companies are not going to employ people unless the Liberian government can reduce the extremely high-cost structures for firms,” many of which rely on generators for electricity.

For years, Liberia had one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, with an estimated 85 percent in 2003, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Last year, Liberia’s national statistical service revised its unemployment definition to add so-called “vulnerable employment.” Anyone who did any paid or unpaid work during a period of one week, even if they only worked for as little as an hour, is considered employed. The definition includes street traders, firewood collectors and kids who volunteer to help motorists park their cars.

Drinking Water

While Liberia’s official unemployment rate now stands at

3.7 percent, there are fewer than 100,000 paid workers nationwide whose employers deduct income tax from their wages, according to the statistical agency.

The country, founded by former U.S. slaves in 1847, doesn’t have functioning sewers, drinking water or a land-line phone system. Garbage collection is nonexistent. Electricity is scarce, with the state-run Liberia Electricity Corporation, supplying 14,000 paying customers. Liberia’s per capita gross domestic product of about $700 a year is the fifth-lowest of 229 countries ranked by the CIA World Factbook, one place ahead of Somalia.

The economy is expected to expand 7.5 percent this year after about 8.3 percent in last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“It makes no sense to register an average economic growth of 7 percent per year and you have the majority of the population unemployed,” Finance Minister Amara Konneh told reporters in January.

Cash Preference

While the UN and the Liberian government focus on skills-training projects that provide temporary employment, many young people say they prefer cash.

Tim Dokie, a 28-year-old former combatant, enrolled in a free training course to become an electronic technician, though not because he wanted to learn the trade.

“I was only praying for the teachers to hand me the tool kits promised at the end of the training, which I readily sold for $15,” he said in an interview.

Such an attitude is one of the reasons government programs to help the unemployed aren’t working, said Kortu Nyandibo, communications director at the Labor Ministry.

Toe said he can’t go back home because his relatives fear being associated with abuses he committed while fighting as a boy soldier.

“My people do not want for me to go around them and the only place I used to call a home was destroyed by rockets and no one wants to rebuild it,” he said. “Without a job, where do I fit in?”