By Julius Spencer
I recently read an article by Prof. Ibrahim Abdullah titled “Marginal Youths or Outlaws? Youth Street Gangs, Globalisation and Violence in Contemporary Sierra Leone” and it has confirmed my worst fears.
A few months ago, the phrase “revolt of the underclass” jumped into my mind and I haven’t been able to forget it since then. I’m not sure, but I believe it was triggered by a conversation I had with my daughter who is now living in Lagos, Nigeria.
We were discussing the rising violence in Nigeria and she told me about a personal experience she had driving home in broad daylight one day. A young man was shot a few feet from her car, in the middle of the road. Apparently, he was trying to escape from a group of young men chasing him.
He fell to the ground after being shot, struggled to his feet and managed to get to the side of the road. However he couldn’t escape, and using machetes, the group chasing him chopped him to death. According to my daughter, this was a gang killing, something that is becoming rampant in Lagos and a number of other Nigerian cities.
Add to this, the activities of Boko Haram in the North of the country and the spate of kidnappings for ransom and abduction of large numbers of school children on a regular basis, and you get a sense of widespread insecurity in Nigeria.
A few years ago, Sierra Leone witnessed what I call the China Nicky phenomenon. A young lady, poorly educated and generally uncultured, captured the attention of the nation and thousands of people mobilised support for her, resulting in her winning the first edition of Big Sister. For most people, what they saw was simply a young lady that made people laugh, and the crowds that came out in support of her were simply people who were impressed with her performance on the show. I am sure you are wondering what this has to do with growing youth violence in Nigeria.
Well, for me, while for many of those who supported China Nicky, they did it because she was entertaining, there was another large group of young people who saw her as one of them and their support was a means of belittling those who believe they are better than them. In other words, to me, it was a way of them getting back at those seemingly cultured and educated women who generally had a snobbish attitude to those they considered below them. To me, therefore, the China Nicky phenomenon was more than just entertainment. It was in a way an uprising by those who would be considered the underclass in society, determined to show they were not worthless, and could even do better than the well-to-do, if given the chance. In other words, it was a show of resentment.
Sierra Leone, like many other African countries, has a huge youth bulge and unfortunately a large proportion of them are either unemployed, under-employed or unemployable. This has resulted in these youths, particularly in urban areas, finding alternative means of survival which invariable lead to drug abuse and crime.
I lived in Nigeria for about 7 years and I was a living witness to the birth and infancy of what has now metamorphosed into gang violence and widespread criminal activity. When I left Sierra Leone in 1981 to pursue postgraduate studies in Nigeria, things had just started to go bad in Sierra Leone, with the economy contracting and the problems of poor electricity, poor water supply, bad roads, etc starting to rear their heads. When I got to Nigeria, I saw and experienced many things I hadn’t seen or experienced in Sierra Leone, including armed robbery. However, by the time I returned to Sierra Leone for good in 1987, these things that I had first seen or experienced in Nigeria were beginning to happen here.
When I got to Nigeria, cultism was in its early stages and was largely limited to university campuses and “area boys” ruled the streets in the large urban centres. By the time I left Nigeria, cultism had expanded to the wider society and the “area boys” were becoming more of gangs.
Fast forward to today and Nigeria is in the grip of widespread gangsterism and “area boys” have been totally transformed into youth gangs, with reprisal killings taking place on a daily basis. While I was in Nigeria, I made the trip between Ibadan and Lagos, almost countless times via the expressway, either in public transportation or driving myself. Recently I was planning to go to Nigeria and would have needed to travel from Lagos to Ibadan, and my daughter advised me that I would have to travel by air because of the insecurity and the possibility of being kidnapped.
Based on my own personal observation, Sierra Leone has in many ways been stepping in the footsteps of Nigeria in many negative ways. In the 1970s while I was in university in Sierra Leone, we had purely social clubs, fraternities and sororities. Initiation into these clubs fraternities and sororities, was very simple. In fact most social clubs had no initiation ceremonies. Today, both the club and fraternity that I was a member of at Njala University College in those days have been transformed, and their initiation ceremonies bear the hallmarks of cultic practices. During my days as a student, physical violence during student elections was totally unheard of. Today, it is the order of the day in virtually all student union elections. The “blackman” versus “whiteman” phenomenon that came into being long after my time in university, is now not even limited to university campuses. It has filtered down to secondary schools and is present in wider society.
As Prof. Abdullah outlines in his article referred to earlier, the “raray boys” of the 70s and 80s no longer exist and, like the “area boys” in Nigeria, have metamorphosed into cliques and gangs. Below is a quote from the article.
“This research reveals that gangsters make their living hawking drugs in public spaces they control/ ‘govern’. This development mirrors the situation in South Central Los Angeles and Chicago. What is palpably missing here is an expanding, profitable and captive market for drugs. The limited market has limited the potential for deadly turf wars and reduced competition for control of markets as is the case in other countries. If and when it gets to that stage, violence, or which groups can muster the muscle power to exclude others from selling in the territory they claim to ‘govern’, will be the deciding factor. If enough is at stake, it is likely that firearms will be procured to defend illegal markets, with clandestine godfather figures lurking in the background.
Gangsters in Sierra Leone are not as local as most people would like to imagine; they could also be deadly global in their thinking and experience. The country’s gangsters are already beginning to advertise by placing photographs of themselves on websites. As gangs become more institutionalised and determined to defend their turf and livelihoods, they could potentially become a part of trans-national, even continent-wide networks.”
Chew on that till I bring you part 2 of this article in a couple of days.
TO BE CONTINUED