Wednesday, August 08, 2007

War-scarred youth hold key to Sierra Leone polls

FREETOWN (Reuters) - In Freetown's rubbish-strewn slums, where sick children defecate in sewers by pot-holed streets, music blaring from shops and taxis tells Sierra Leone's youth that politicians have failed their war-ravaged country.

The West African nation's 1991-2002 civil war was infamous for drugged child soldiers who raped and mutilated thousands of civilians, but now young Sierra Leoneans hold in their hands the future of their country, one of the poorest on earth.

At presidential and parliamentary elections on Sunday -- the first since a U.N. peacekeeping force pulled out in 2005 and a crucial test of the former British colony's emergence from conflict -- over half the 2.6 million voters will be under 32.

"Pak N Go!" booms the chorus of a dance floor hit by rappers Jungle Leaders in a stark message to the ruling party. Other songs -- in the Krio dialect devised by the freed slaves who founded the colony -- urge young people to oust the graft-ridden establishment and take a stand against violence.

President Tejan Kabbah is stepping down at the polls, having picked his deputy Soloman Berewa as the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) candidate. But disillusionment is rife with their failure to tackle corruption and curb biting poverty, despite the country's reserves of gold, diamonds and minerals.

"Last time I voted for Kabbah but he did not do what he said," said Osman Koroma, 26, a builder who earns less than $1 a day. "I'm angry: there is no light, no roads. We do suffer. (Politicians) do nothing for us. All they do is eat."

Like many voters, Koroma is going to switch his support from the SLPP to the opposition All People's Congress (APC), which is promising zero-tolerance for graft and could mount a strong challenge for power after a good showing in 2004 local polls.

Another song popular on Freetown's rain-soaked streets, by an artist called Emerson, brands politicians as "Tu Fut Arata" -- two-legged rats.

"The market is calling for their music," said Nicholas Demeter of U.S. election monitors, the National Democratic Institute. "But youth can also be manipulated. They're young, and can be bought off with a few dollars."

War-scarred youth hold key to Sierra Leone polls | Reuters