In 2001-2, the United Nations supervised a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program in Sierra Leone that processed 72,000 individuals, the majority of whom were youth. The program was a great success in its ability to disarm society, dissolve the military ranks of the Revolutionary United Front and reduce the size of the Sierra Leonean Armed Forces; but like DDR programs elsewhere, the ‘reintegration’ component proved thin and ineffective. Many former-combatants (especially youth) were unable to return to their home communities due to their actions during the war and opted instead to stay in the cities, where they found scant economic opportunities or social protections. As one youth activist explained, the peace process “disarmed the gun but not the mind” and these former combatants have been exploited by elites to foment political violence, especially around election time.
In this context, the most successful DDR and youth employment initiative did not come from United Nations or Government programming; it arose from disempowered youth helping themselves by founding the Sierra Leone Bike Riders Union, popularly known as the Okada Riders. The organization began in Makeni during the war when displaced youth banded together to provide a dirt-bike taxi service. The organization expanded rapidly at the end of the war to its present membership of approximately 200,000 riders spread across the country, half of whom are ex-combatants (by the estimate of the Union’s President). (In contrast, a US$10 million World Bank cash-for-work program has only managed to reach 25,000 youth, and only on a temporary, unsustainable basis).
Internally, the Union has a democratic structure that spans from the National Chairman and President to Regional Chairmen, District Chairmen, and to Park Chairmen at bike hubs. By pooling member dues, the organization creates a social safety net for its members by funding health care and other services when needed. Given the poor state of most of Sierra Leone’s roads and the traffic congestion of Freetown, the Riders provide an essential service and are often the most efficient form of transportation in the country.
The bottom-up nature of the Okada riders is not without problems in relation to the top, however. The Riders, given the inadequacy of government and international programs, went it alone to pursue their own form of development, and created a social network separate from state authority, which can easily come into conflict with the state and its laws. Indeed, the Riders are widely viewed as a law unto themselves in ways that go well beyond mere traffic violations. In June 2012, for example, an Officer of the Operations Support Division (OSD) of the Sierra Leone Police shot an Okada Rider in the back at a checkpoint in the Goderich area of Freetown. Over 200 Riders retaliated by attacking the local police station with rocks, injuring two constables and forcing the officers to flee as their office was ransacked. The issue was ultimately resolved when the OSD Officer who killed the Rider was jailed for murder, and the Inspector General of Police issued stern orders concerning the use of lethal force.
In a more recent problem, the Government of Sierra Leone has now banned the Riders from several of the major streets of Freetown in order to address the high incidence of accidents. While the concern for safety is laudable, this sweeping move is risky because it sends the wrong signal to the Riders: not only has the government been unable to provide for the well-being of the riders, now it appears to be taking their self-help livelihoods away. So far, the riders have adapted to the ban by pretending to be private riders rather than taxis, or by simply ignoring the ban when the police are not around. But if the government takes further steps to enforce this measure, Freetown will likely witness a multitude of conflicts between police and the riders, which could easily turn violent. (Indeed, one of the key motives to form the Riders Union was to protect its members from harassment by police and other state agents).
Despite these problems, the Riders’ Union is easily the most successful youth employment scheme in the country, and as such, an important source of peace and stability in a context of persistent youth marginalization. Indeed, the Riders’ Union sees itself as upholding the rule of law because it keeps youth employed and prevents them from becoming a source of instability. It is keen to project a lawful and responsible image and hosts public events. It even bestowed the honorary title ‘Chief Bike Rider’ upon the country’s President, Ernest Bai Koroma.
Ultimately, the case of the Okada Riders demonstrates the resilience and creativity of youth and former-combatants in creating their own opportunities for development, but also suggests a crucial cautionary note for the peacebuilding enterprise in Sierra Leone: if the state is not able to provide livelihoods and empowerment to youth, they will create their own social systems which can easily come into conflict — even violent conflict — with state structures and the rule of law while paradoxically constituting a key force for peace.
Michael Lawrence is an Associate at the Security Governance Group presently conducting field research on youth and peacebuilding in Sierra Leone, where he is a frequent passenger of the Okada Riders.