In the summer of 2013, Freetown’s King Jimmy Bridge collapsed. This was around a decade after the end of Sierra Leone’s civil war, and a year before the outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus; needless to say, the resulting deaths seemed barely newsworthy.
But King Jimmy Bridge, and the tunnels that it took down with it, had particular significance to the many young people who make a precarious living in the neighbouring streets’ vibrant informal economy. The tunnels bore the marks of the chains used to imprison the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, as passages to the Ocean they were about to cross. Before King Jimmy Bridge collapsed, the tunnels served as congregation spots for young people, where discussions ensued about their current predicaments and about the plight of the youthman in a country where high rates of youth unemployment have forced a generation into marginal and irregular income-generating activities.
The powerful symbolism of Sierra Leone’s historical memory of the slave trade (see Shaw 2002) was not simply embodied in marginal youths’ existence in the tunnels under King Jimmy Bridge. It was also explicitly evoked in their articulations of a political imagination based on notions of a citizens’ right to work. In the aftermath of an urban beautification project, Operation WID (Waste management, Improvement of the roads, and Decongestion), that curtailed street trading and commercial motorbike riding, young people’s frustration at this blow to their livelihoods was expressed through a poignant refrain: “We are Sierra Leoneans, not slaves!”
This mobilisation of the language of citizenship through the lens of a painful collective memory highlights several things. Firstly, it points to the significance of citizenship’s symbolic value. Freetown’s informal workers often emphasised the importance of being recognised as citizens, even if this recognition did not have immediate or clear outcomes. As Abbas, an informal mobile phone trader put it: “I vote for development in my country; I do not see any development, but because I am a citizen I will do that, I will vote”. In this sense, Chatterjee’s (2004) intimation that in most of the world we must look below the formal trappings of citizenship to understand the way in which people experience political authority, while clearly valid, should not lead us to underestimate the dignity that is imparted by official recognition, even if the latter is purely nominal.
Secondly, the fact that the slogan: “We are Sierra Leoneans, not slaves”, was summoned up to protest a project that threatened young people’s livelihoods reflects how such symbolism can also be used to give substantive content to notions of citizenship. The symbolic value of citizenship, in other words, cannot be fully detached from the expectations that emanate from the wish to be recognised as a citizen. The right to work was at the centre of expectations associated with official recognition, in the sense that being banned from the streets was interpreted as a breach of the obligations owed to citizens by the state. These expectations were territorially circumscribed, as evidenced by an alternative catchphrase: “We are Sierra Leoneans, not foreigners”. In the context of an unemployment crisis, informal workers saw this attack on their livelihoods as especially unfair because it came without alternatives in the form of job prospects, a blatant failure to take citizens’ wellbeing into account. As Suleiman, a motorbike rider, figuratively argued: “If you want your daughter to stop eating cassava, you should have rice at home”, reflecting the affinity between the expectations of state behaviour towards its youth and that of a parent towards his or her children. “Let them find work for us”, Suleiman’s colleagues urged, in reference to government officials. As Ferguson (2013: 236) argues, the framing of citizens as children to a paternalist state can be read as a “very strong assertion, not just of inequality but of a social obligation linking state and citizen”. Using the language of citizenship and care, therefore, young informal workers brought work to the centre of articulations of state obligations towards its citizens. As expressed by Sheku in a focus group with street traders:
What about the Ministers and the Councillors? They don’t work for the country? Because we don’t see anything. We go to them and they say they will find work. African Minerals has come, how many thousands have they taken from this area? Nobody!
To be treated as citizens, not as slaves, then, would require being given opportunities through job creation, or at the very least not being hindered in attempts to make ends meet through what were often seen as undesirable and temporary livelihood strategies that did not confer immediate status but at least offered a bridge to the future.
The oft-repeated idea that the job crisis was a result of selfishness on the part of elected officials and an infringement of their obligations to the citizenry highlights the need to take seriously “contemporary needs for care, moral connection and responsible obligations in ways that emancipatory liberal rights talk often does not” (Ferguson 2013: 237). What is especially significant is that, in placing these contestations and expectations at the doorstep of the state, young informal workers revealed how their imagination was rooted in a vision of the state as a provider of employment. Employment provided a language through which to express what it means to be a citizen, what it is fair to claim from the state. While informal workers and marginal youth are often envisaged as disengaging from, or making their community “invisible” to, a state “which is seen as more repressive than rewarding”, young people’s visions of a fair polity remained state-centric (Azarya 1994: 83).
This political imagination shows that historical patterns of predation or disempowering political engagement have not resulted in either acceptance of the status quo or total disengagement. Despite prevalent narratives of state neglect, or of negative encounters with the police or various politicians during electoral campaigns, the state remained indelibly present in young people’s imagination as the locus of political claims. Through the poignant juxtaposition of citizenship and slavery, young people’s protest against attacks on their economic activity and more broadly against the employment crisis, reflects their efforts to force their way to political recognition, rather than existing a political space that seems to exclude their voices and needs.
Azarya, V. 1994. ‘Civil Society and Disengagement in Africa’, in Harbeson, J.W., Rothchild, D., and Chazan, N. eds. Civil Society and the State in Africa. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
Chatterjee, P. 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ferguson, J. 2013. ‘Declarations of Dependence: Labour, Personhood, and Welfare in Southern Africa’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19 (2): 223-42.
Shaw, R. 2002. Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone. London: University of Chicago Press.