Weah Launches $13M Fund Drive for “Zogos” -Tells At-Risk Youths to embrace change, Be the Change

MONROVIA– In what has been described as a strong demonstration of the Government’s political will to address the menace of the disadvantaged youth otherwise called “Zogos” in the country, President George Manneh Weah yesterday, Thursday, June 30, 2022, launched the National Fund Drive for Rehabilitation and Empowerment of the At-Risk Youth of Liberia estimated to cost $13.9m, as part of his administration’s commitment to the general well-being and welfare of the country’s youth, “so that they are better equipped to take advantage of the economic opportunities available in our society for them to become productive citizens”. Rising to the occasion, President Weah called on the disadvantaged youths to embrace change for meaningful development to happen in their lives. He pledged USD 1 million on behalf of the government to the project.

Speaking at the Project launch which had as its theme, “Reclaiming Our Youth for a Better Liberia”, held at the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Ministerial Complex in Congo Town, President Weah who seemed visibly unsettled over  the predicament of the disadvantaged youth, said the continued neglect of their plight can rapidly develop into a significant threat to civil and national security, adding that this threat of imminent danger will continue to grow in size and scope if these potentially valuable human assets are not reclaimed and redeemed and transformed into law-abiding citizens whose education and skills sets will enable them to have a reasonable chance of re-integrating into the larger society as productive, self-sufficient and self-sustaining citizens.

“Over the years since my incumbency, this commitment to our young people has been manifested in many improvements in our educational infrastructure, policies, and programs at all levels, including elementary, secondary, college, and university, as well as vocational.  And we will continue to invest in our youth, in spite of scarce resources and competing demands, because they are Liberia’s future,” President Weah averred.

He said the youth are the largest and most important demographic stratum of the country’s population, and the government has an important duty to prepare them to achieve their aspirations and become as qualified as possible, so that they can effectively compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.

President Weah noted that, however, for far too long, Liberia has witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of disadvantaged members of the youth population who live on the streets and in urban ghettos, adding that most of them were affected by the long years of Liberia’s civil conflict, during which they were conscripted as child soldiers by various warring factions and introduced to drugs and other harmful substances.

“Again, some of them were orphaned by the death or disappearance of their parents during the civil wars, and the destruction of their traditional family structures.  They are the human collateral damage that is one of the unintended consequences of a war that was anything but civil”, he said.

At the well-attended program that constituted majority at-risk youths from the various ghettos in and around Monrovia, President told the audience that some estimates place their number as more than 130,000, spread throughout Liberia, adding that since the end of the conflict almost two decades ago, certain historical and structural lapses within the  governance processes have placed these youths at societal risk, and they have turned to drugs and other anti-social habits for their mere survival and sustenance, bemoaning that with no education and no training, they are not only unemployed, but unemployable. “As such, these unfortunate At-Risk youths represent a clear and present danger not only to themselves, but also to the entire socio-economic fabric of our Nation”, he said.

As a way of addressing some of the acute youth related issues, Weah said he promised during his campaign for the presidency that youth development would be one of his priorities, and that young people will be prepared so that they can have a place in the society as productive citizens. He said over the years, he has given strong instructions to the Ministry of Youth and Sports to ensure the well-being of the young people, most especially the vulnerable youth population commonly known as “Zogos”.

“In this regard, I would like to acknowledge the valuable collaboration and sponsorship of the “Socio Economic Empowerment of Disadvantaged Youth (SEED) project by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and United Nation Development Program (UNDP) and other partners, which transformed the lives of more than 500 At-Risk Youths.

“I am excited today, therefore, to kick-start a series of national transformative measures under my administration to orientate, rehabilitate, and build the capacities of our At-Risk-Youth, through skills-based vocational training, as well as economically empowering them through jobs and business opportunities.

“After piloting and assessing the success of the SEED project, my government has endorsed a plan by the Inter-Ministerial Steering Committee and the One UN System for an At-Risk-Youth Empowerment Program that will further rehabilitate and empower the At-Risk-Youth population of our country.

“Amongst other things, the program will fully rehabilitate all physical structures of the Bensonville Youth Agriculture Training Center.  It will also support the construction of new modern structures to meet the program’s objectives of hosting our At-Risk-Youth to rehabilitate them through detoxification and psycho-social counseling.  There will also be further emphasis on family reintegration, TVET skills acquisition, and economic empowerment through the provision of business start-up.

“While my Administration is focused on the objectives of this program, it is also important that additional measures are put into place to stop the channels through which our youth are being exposed to drugs and narcotic substance abuses. I am therefore calling on all agencies of Government, including the Liberia Drugs Enforcement Agency, and the Liberia National Police through the Ministry of Justice, to ensure that the applicable laws are fully enforced to discourage the sale of drugs within our communities and within the country at large”, he said.

At the end of his speech which he read from a prepared text, President then turned to the at-risk youths who came out in their numbers, apparently from the awareness created in the communities where they lived, and told them in the plain Liberian parlance, that in as much as the government and development partners are ready to assist them, they too must be ready to change their behavior so that they can be taken seriously as well as being able to get away from their predicament.

“Now, let me talk to you in our Gbana way”, Weah said amid applause and ovation from the audience, especially the at-risk youths. “Today we are here to help you with some of the facilities to change your lives, but you must first be ready to change your attitude so that people will not always refer to you as Zogos. We all have our past, and I am not always ashamed to talk about my own life. I used to live in the ghetto, I was brought up in Gibraltar but those things did not change me to where I am today. I decided to leave them and change and from there I became focused”, he told the youths.

He told them that he was happy that he realized his mistakes in the past and was ready to make the change which the youth themselves can also learn from.

“You can be what you want to be, it is the choice you make that will change you. You have to be responsible and work towards it. I look at you there and we can have presidents, senators, but it will depend on you,” President Weah said.

Earlier, the Minister of Finance and Development Planning, Samuel D. Tweah Jr, who gave the overview of the project, said the exercise was as a result of painstaking efforts on the part of the government to find a lasting solution to what he called a national challenge. He lauded the country’s development partners for their support to the project which according to him will be part of the process to consolidate peace and security in the country after the civil war came to an end some years ago.

The Minister of Youth and Sports, Zeogar Wilson, who gave a PowerPoint presentation of the state of the at-risk youths in the country, put their number at 150,000, saying that they are found mainly in the estimated 10,000 ghettos throughout the country, with Montserrado County topping the list.

He said after initial delays in adopting the project, the cabinet in a meeting with the President adopted the project in February, 2022 with four thematic areas including, creating the enabling environment for the youth, training and recruitment, promotion of sports and recreation and social protection.

Also speaking at the occasion, United Nations Resident Representative to Liberia, Niels Scott, said his institution is committed to the project as it is part of the many projects the United Nations system has identified to support to its fullest.

Goodwill messages also came from the European Union, the World Bank, the Diplomatic corps in Liberia, Eco Bank, among many other institutions who pledged their respective support for the project.

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