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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Sierra Leone > Sierra Leone: A New Era of Reform?

Sierra Leone: A New Era of Reform?

Africa Report N°143 31 Jul 2008


Sierra Leone has made much progress since the civil war ended in 2002, but a number of social and economic time bombs must still be defused if an enduring peace is to be built. The 2007 elections, in which Ernest Bai Koroma won the presidency and his All People’s Congress (APC) wrested the parliament from the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), restored legitimacy to the electoral process. Koroma’s reform agenda promises much but must overcome big challenges. The majority of the population lives in abject poverty, and an ever-growing army of unemployed, socially alienated youth is a perennial threat to security. Patronage networks and identity politics, though evolving, continue to constrain government decisions. The new government faces a fundamental political challenge in building public confidence in its agenda, while donor support to post-war reconstruction is gradually scaled down. It needs to do more than call for “attitudinal change” and a renewed “social contract” if it is to improve accountability and combat corruption. The UN Peacebuilding Commission can make a major contribution.

Voting patterns in the recent elections show that the APC’s reform message was well received in urban areas, where both increasing individualism and interest in voluntary association are beginning to replace the old system of extended families and elite patronage networks. At the same time, continued improvements in security and struggles for access to development resources have also resulted in a resurgence of identity politics. This is visible in the return of the old divide between the northern-aligned APC and southern-aligned SLPP, as well as at a sub-regional level, in the concentration of electoral support for the breakaway People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) party in the country’s second largest city, Bo, and southern coastal areas.

The new president has exacerbated regional political rivalries by dismissing numerous functionaries appointed by the previous administration and replacing them with APC-supporting northerners. Returnees from the sizeable overseas diaspora, a major source of election campaign money, have contributed to the pressure on him to reward party faithful with government jobs. Koroma nevertheless has sought to fulfil his promise to run government “like a business concern”. He has streamlined the ministerial system, put civil service reform back on the political agenda and required ministers to sign performance contracts whose targets they must meet to keep their jobs.

The president appears to be playing out a long-term strategy of reform in introducing new political discipline and accountability to the old system of patronage politics. His government’s success in securing donor support for emergency electricity supplies for Freetown, the capital, was a political triumph, enabling him to speak with authority about the need for a new “social contract” in which the government supplies services and responsible citizens pay for them. However, rising food prices highlight the government’s limited room for manoeuvre, and the Presidential Transition Team, underscored the continuing dependency on donors.

That dependency is part of the reason for the government’s emphasis on “attitudinal change”, as well as the uncertainty over the future of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which has been donor-funded. The attention the Koroma team is giving to communications strategy shows it is aware of the difficulties of moving to national ownership of the development process, but it will take more than skilful news management to satisfy popular demand for an escape from poverty. Donor-supported programs to provide young people with educational and employment opportunities may only have provided a temporary breathing space before the crisis of youth alienation reasserts itself. Recent research in both rural and urban areas indicates that the country’s social fabric is stronger than had been thought, but a loss of faith in the post-war development process could still be catastrophic.

Building a lasting post-war political settlement requires a genuinely national project. One possibility is formulation of a fully consultative National Development Plan to replace the recently expired Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). Such a plan needs to enhance interaction between government and citizens and form the basis upon which future governments are held politically to account for meeting development targets.

Even in an aid-dependent country like Sierra Leone, donors’ capacity to influence the government on politically sensitive matters has proven to be very limited. Some may be reluctant to support a nation-building project that goes beyond the technical aspects of poverty reduction and institutional capacity building. However, the new UN Peacebuilding Commission is well placed to mediate the transition from donor-driven post-war reconstruction to democracy-driven national development.


To the Government of Sierra Leone:

1.  Give meaning to the rhetoric about “attitudinal change” and “zero tolerance on corruption” through specific policies for improving public service delivery and increasing government transparency and accountability.

2.  Consolidate policy on youth employment, private sector development, infrastructure rehabilitation, public sector reform and decentralisation into a National Development Plan and conduct extensive public consultations to determine local needs.

3.  Ensure any future governmental audit is transparent, bipartisan and disseminated in a form that enhances public understanding of the operations, capacity and limitations of governmental ministries, departments and agencies.

4.  Revive urgently discussion and consultation on the modalities of land tenure reform in the provinces.

5.  Ensure the National Electoral Commission (NEC) remains politically independent, which may require bipartisan consultation over future staff appointments.

6.  Honour public promises to separate the offices of justice minister and attorney general and to require senior officials to declare their private assets.

To Donors:

7.  Support the creation of a National Development Plan that replaces the recently expired Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and commit long-term funding to it.

8.  Continue supporting specific projects in partnership with the government but ensure, where possible, that these are integrated within the National Development Plan.

9.  Continue supporting the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), which has an important role in promoting governmental accountability.

To the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC):

10.  Support the Koroma government’s efforts to forge political consensus and improve accountability, including by funding implementation of Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommendations and countrywide consultations on a National Development Plan and land tenure reform.

11.  Use the Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) strategically to support public consultations, consensus building and policy development rather than simply plugging gaps in existing development funding.

Dakar/Brussels, 31 July 2008

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