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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Sierra Leone > A Time for Cautious Optimism

A Time for Cautious Optimism

Carolyn Norris, International Herald Tribune  |   13 Sep 2007

Amid the tensions of Sierra Leone's nationwide elections after a harrowing decade of civil war, Rashid Sandy, a battle-hardened rebel leader turned election observer, remains surprisingly upbeat about his devastated country's future.

"People won't get deep into violence again," he told me recently, speaking as Sierra Leone opened its presidential and parliamentary polls.

Sandy said he is putting his faith in the willingness of the country's tribal chiefs and political parties to respect the election results, and added that what most of his former fighters want more than anything else is jobs.

"While they remain idle," he said, "they can still be used by anyone aiming to use violence. What they really want right now is to get involved in nation-building."

For Sierra Leone, considered by many as the ultimate symbol of a failed state, nation building cannot come too soon. The election is widely seen as a test of the country's ability to stand on its own after UN peacekeepers withdrew two years ago. But Sierra Leone's steady stabilization since the civil war ended in 2002 and the still-to-be-concluded electoral process bring reasons for cautious optimism.

There has been progress since peace returned: Primary school enrollment has risen substantially; $1.6 billion in external debt has been forgiven; the economy has grown by 7 percent in each of the past two years.

"There are now human rights groups, a growing civil society and the media to prevail upon government to bring about change," Sandy said,

Initially, the election campaign was largely fair and peaceful, and the voting in the first round on Aug. 11 appears to have been credible and transparent. In towns like Bo, in the governing party's political heartland, the opposition was able to hold rallies after the police defied efforts by some local chiefs to prevent them.

After the first round showed no clear presidential winner, the country headed toward a run-off on Saturday amid some violent incidents and threats by the out-going president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, to declare a state of emergency.

Now a nervous but hopeful country awaits the final result. The votes counted so far have been a good indication of the popular aspirations for change. The pace of reform has been too slow under Kabbah's Sierra Leone People's Party. His would-be successor, Vice President Solomon Berewa, seems to be paying the price, trailing in the second round. Ernest Koroma of the opposition All People's Congress appears to be in the lead. These two parties reflect the country's tribal divisions: The Mende ethnic group traditionally supports the People's Party, while the Temne generally back the All People's Congress.

But regular voting patterns appear to have been disrupted by Charles Margai, a former People's Party heavyweight, whose new party, the People's Movement for Democratic Change, took third place in early voting. To add to the complex tensions, the Movement is itself divided over Margai's decision to throw his second-round support behind Koroma. Margai's departure split loyalties within the southern and eastern provinces, which used to be the People's Party stronghold. The early results appear to have given Koroma's party an outright majority in parliament, and the governing People's Party is nervous.

Most of the thousands of voters in Sierra Leone hope that this will be the moment when the election's losers peacefully accept their defeat.

For the winners, the challenges will be even more difficult: They will have to meet popular expectations and prove to voters that the democratic process can indeed make a difference in their lives. "Whoever wins the presidency will be on trial to develop the nation so the resources can reach the masses," Sandy said.

But many problems remain. Extreme poverty persists, made worse by a devastated infrastructure. As the rains hit Freetown at the height of the election season this summer, residents were bitterly reminded that life comes to a standstill whenever the poorly maintained roads flood. The rains damaged many homes and raised the threat of malaria and other diseases. Almost 30 percent of children in Sierra Leone don't live to see their fifth birthday, and malaria is responsible for a third of those lost. In such conditions, and with rare access to clean water and electricity, growing impatience for change is easy to understand.

Sierra Leone needs radical reform. The new government will have to strengthen a judiciary that is neither independent nor credible, create jobs for young people and demobilized soldiers, end endemic corruption, increase confidence in a military with a history of abuse and engagement in coups and expand the role for women in political and economic life.

The UN Peacebuilding Commission has chosen Sierra Leone as one of its first two countries for sustained attention. It too must prove that it can make a difference. Donors will have to engage immediately with the new administration and make clear that a break with past failures, to tackle corruption in particular, is a prerequisite for long-term support.

There already have been shots across the future's government's bow: The British development agency has ceased financial support for Sierra Leone's Anti-Corruption Commission due to its lack of progress.

Despite some violence and lingering tensions that could reignite, recent weeks have revealed an electorate and political system with a maturity that few would have predicted.

If political leaders can ensure that their supporters remain peaceful once the final results are announced, if the vote's losers accept defeat gracefully, and if a shattered society's expectations can be addressed systematically, then Sierra Leone will truly be on the cusp of its rebirth - and the optimism of a war-hardened former rebel commander may indeed be justified.

Carolyn Norris is West Africa project director of the International Crisis Group.

 
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