Relentless Trends 2: surplus men and jobs

Last year, in March, we (that is: the intrepid and unbeatable journo team consisting of photographer Martin Waalboer and myself) walked into West Point, one of the worst slums in the Liberian capital Monrovia.

West Point, Monrovia. Photo: Martin Waalboer

The entrance is a small corridor – a fantastic spot for anyone who wants to rob visitors. Emerging at the other side and immediately two burly chaps walk up. Security, they say. Self-appointed, that much is clear. They would be “area boys” in Nigeria, “vigilantes” in other parts of the world. They will guarantee our safety and well-being whilst in West Point, they say, provided of course we stop by on the way out and pay them.

We march onto the beach, we pass a big pile of rotting fish, parked right next to the first iron hovels. Apparently, you can even get used to this without spending the entire day vomiting your bowels out. The smell is pervasive. We walk through a cloud of flies.

Into the labyrinth and the atmosphere is grim. We turn one of many corners and find ourselves in a small open space. There’s a small group of – you guessed it – young men, doing nothing. Well, they’re gambling, what else is there to do? Barely concealed aggression on our approach and of course immediate demands for cash. We move on before things get too heated. But you only have to talk to a few and look beyond the gangster pose – and you’ll soon find out what they really want.

Jobs.

The billboard is a pipedream - but at least these guys work... Photo: Martin Waalboer

Jobs will give them a station in life. But West Point, Monrovia, is the terminus. All ends here. Nowhere to go, except for the sea; nothing to do, except sit around. And most of all: absolutely nobody cares. It is a universal phenomenon: young men, at times individually but most definitely as a group are usually loathed, feared, sent packing, or totally ignored.

The inventor of the youth bulge, Gunnar Heinsohn, whom I mentioned yesterday, argues that for these and other surplus young men, there are basically three options: leave, crime and fight. In Africa, they do all three. Whatever the rhetoric emanating from small, aging, frazzled Fortress Europe, immigration will be with you for a very very long time. It does not matter if you channel it through the tiny and unusable pipelines of asylum procedures (virtually no-one from Africa leaves for political reasons); it does not matter how many ships you send to patrol the coast, how many electric fences you put up – you sent your guys overseas for centuries, now the rest is doing the same. Get used to it.

Monrovia, Liberia, May 1996. Photo: gatsbye53 on Flickr

Crime and war are very much last resorts. Heinsohn cites Kenya and wonders why, given its burgeoning young male population, it took so long for the violence to break out. He says there was still that last piece of land to be parcelled out and when that was gone, violence became inevitable. He also cites Algeria, where before the brutal civil war in the 1990s women had up to 7 children. Now it’s less than two. That, he argues, is the only thing that has changed in Algeria.

Personally I think he’s rather short on other factors that may have influenced this drastic change but he does spin an interesting demographic yarn – even though it is incomplete. Yes, you can leave, you can get into crime or go to war. But you can also create jobs. And this they do: setting up “security” outfits, like the one in West Point; going into the transport business, like the “motortaxi” guys in the picture above; getting into trade (although this is limited as trade is very much a woman’s turf); becoming craftsmen…

Heinsohn does, however, have a point if you consider that yet another form of job creation can indeed be…crime. And from crime, especially violent crime, the step to war is not really such a leap. Remember the main slogan of those fighter boys (and indeed a few girls) during Liberia’s civil war? “Pay Yourself.” A few thousand have made a career out of it; some of them are currently heading to their next “pay yourself” operation: Côte d’Ivoire. Luckily, so far, Côte d’Ivoire has not leapt off the precipice.

Most countries do not go to Liberian extremes. But even in small, peaceful, lovely, religious Senegal, there may be a few worrying forms of job creation happening.

More about that, tomorrow.

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4 Responses to “Relentless Trends 2: surplus men and jobs”

  1. Aernout Says:

    The armies of the Have-Nots.
    “Waiting for the kola nut”

    Thanks for this piece – I like it 🙂

  2. Carolien Cleiren Says:

    Bram, this is all very interesting. I have seen some documentaires about West Point and it always amazes me how these people live. I am sure that crime must be very tempting.

    Take good care, your work must be dangerous sometimes.

    Carolien Cleiren

  3. Côte d’Ivoire: Gbagbo wins (1) « Bram Posthumus – Yoff Tales Says:

    […] incidentally, ties in very well with a mini-series I ran here, called “Relentless Trends”. It’s simply the latest version of how a society, any society, makes use of a surplus of young men … And so, on to 3. Jeune […]

  4. The last light out or the first light in? | Bram Posthumus - Yoff Tales Says:

    […] They are almost always young men. And the greatest risk is that they will come to regard their exploits in the same way those young former fighters I interviewed years ago, in Liberia. They often said that after the war they considered themselves unemployed. […]

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