Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 July 2018
In January 2013, less than two months since the second post-war elections, new measures were brought in to curb informal trading and commercial motorbike riding in Freetown. One slogan that was oft repeated by young people in the day following the enforcement of these measures was especially striking: ‘We are Sierra Leoneans, not slaves’. Much can be read into this charged statement, and the politics surrounding these measures and the protests are explored at length in the following chapters. However, above all, the statement is a powerful reminder of the ineluctable role of history, not simply as context but also how it is inscribed and reproduced in contemporary practices and social relations. The reference to the slave trade is especially apt as an opening for an exploration of the complex and contentious ways in which labour has been central to the formation of the Sierra Leonean state and to the conduct of politics over time.
Experiential accounts of the processes connecting unemployment and mobilisation must be rooted in an analysis of labour market and political opportunity structures within which these experiences take place, and to take into account the development of these structures over time. This chapter therefore focuses on the role of labour in Sierra Leone's trajectory of economic development and in determining the nature of the political space for young citizens in the years between decolonisation up to the decade of reconstruction efforts after the civil war. Such an analysis shows the mutual influence of the economy and politics over time. While justice cannot be done to the richness of existing analyses of Sierra Leone's history, an overview of the key junctures in the country's trajectory from colonisation to the events narrated in this book highlights how young people's experiences of unemployment are inextricable from the political economy of labour. These junctures cast a light on the historically specific ways in which the organisation of work has underpinned the structure of society and politics, from the role of the slave trade in determining the nature of British colonialism, to the narrowing of employment opportunities under one-party rule and in the post-war projects of democratisation and economic liberalisation.