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A legacy of youth empowerment – Meet 33-year-old Sierra Leone youth affairs minister

A legacy of youth empowerment – Meet 33-year-old Sierra Leone youth affairs minister

By Osman Benk Sankoh

Africa Renewal – Orman Bangura’s life journey has been a remarkable one. The death of his father when he was a toddler devastated the family’s finances. At the time, his widowed mother thought her son’s best shot at a good life was becoming a tailor or a baker. At just 11 years old, Mr. Bangura enlisted as an apprentice in a tailoring shop.

Fast-forward to 2019, and the 33-year-old Bangura is Sierra Leone’s minister of youth affairs, the youngest minister in the cabinet.

He credits his mother for ensuring his focus on education. “She made all the sacrifices for me,” he says. After his secondary school education, Mr. Bangura received a government grant to attend Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone, where he graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting.

His professional career includes finance and accounting positions with different institutions in his country. These were the Standard Chartered Bank, the London Mining Company and the Total Global Steel Company. Before his ministerial appointment, he was the chief accountant at the Sierra Leone branch of eHealth Africa, an organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C., that supports health systems in poor communities.

By appointing Mr. Bangura as minister, Sierra Leone’s current president, Julius Maada Bio, in part fulfils his promise to appoint young people to top positions in government. Other key appointees in Mr. Bio’s administration include Francis Ben Kaifala, 34, head of the Anti-Corruption Commission; David Moinina Sengeh, 32, a technology whiz kid from MIT and Harvard, the country’s chief innovation officer; and Yusuf Keketoma Sandi, 32, Presidential Spokesperson and Press Secretary.
Mr. Bio himself was a military head of state in March 1996 at just 31 years of age before handing power over to a civilian government that same year.

Mr. Bangura’s popularity in Sierra Leone comes in part from his youth and his unconventional personal style, but also from the policies he is developing.

He sometimes goes to cabinet meetings in khaki trousers, sneakers and rolled up long-sleeved shirts. As well, he regularly visits popular cafés known locally as “ataya bases” to engage young people in lively, sometimes heated discussions about political, economic and social issues. The minister also finds time to go to simple restaurants in the impoverished neighborhoods of the capital, Freetown, where he mixes freely with the people. On weekends he is usually seen running or playing football on the beaches with local youths.

While his personal style has captivated a society not accustomed to having easy access to top government functionaries, the policies Mr. Bangura is formulating and implementing have further endeared him to the public.

One of his first tasks as minister was to resuscitate the moribund National Youth Service Scheme (NYSS), which was first set up in 1961 but failed miserably at that time. In 2016 the scheme was reestablished by an act of Parliament. Mr. Bangura is hopeful that this time, young graduates will be able to undertake a year of compulsory national service. He has recruited 200 youths as part of a startup strategy.

“The NYSS will encourage volunteerism, foster patriotism and national cohesion,” he said.
The young minister is also implementing the Youth in Entrepreneurship Project, which, according to him, “will place cash and training in the hands of young Sierra Leoneans with innovative and groundbreaking ideas for the development of the country.”

He is helping set up youth projects in the agricultural and fisheries sectors, and a youth village where young people will learn vocational skills to increase their social mobility.

Mr. Bangura also proposes what he calls the Youth Empowerment Fund, from which young people will be able to draw financing for business ideas. He says the fund will allow “the country to reap demographic dividends,” adding that youth employment “is a security and development challenge that should be addressed effectively and immediately.”

Chernor Bah, an international girls’ champion and co-founder of Purposeful Production, a movement-building hub for adolescent girls in developing countries, works closely with Mr. Bangura. Mr. Bah is helping to review the country’s national youth policy. He says, “Being a minister has not changed Mr. Bangura. He remains just as he has always been, maintaining his circle of friends and caring for the underprivileged members of society.”

Mr. Bangura has set his sights on building a legacy of youth empowerment. “We must be determined to do the needful for young people and for national development,” he said.

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