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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Sierra Leone > Sierra Leone: Government Has Real Chance to Boost Peace

Sierra Leone: Government Has Real Chance to Boost Peace

François Grignon, allAfrica  |   7 Aug 2008

Although Sierra Leone has made marked political and economic progress since the end of its civil war in 2002, worrying institutional and social ills are still untreated, foreign aid flows have dropped and the stabilizing presence of a United Nations office there is coming to an end.

There is, however, a valuable opportunity to build a national consensus and pursue a peace-building and consolidation project that could put the country back on its feet for the long term.

 In the August-September 2007 elections, the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) wrested leadership from the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party. The almost entirely peaceful transfer of power was a testament to the growing strength of the country’s fledgling democracy and gave the government the glow of legitimacy at home and abroad.

In his first year, President Ernest Bai Koroma has given the impression he is dealing with the difficult issues head-on, but results are mixed.

To his credit he has streamlined the civil service, demanded ministers be held accountable and, albeit expensively, brought electricity to the capital, Freetown. But the public and bureaucrats alike say corruption remains a way of life. In fighting this affliction, Koroma emphasises the need for widespread “attitudinal change.” This is easier said than done.

Koroma’s genuine reformist intentions are also stymied by long-entrenched ways of doing things. The old system of patrons diverting state resources to their hometowns in return for loyal political support hampers cohesion in central government and fosters corruption.

More important, the people’s strong feelings of regional and ethnic identity continue to split the country between the northern-aligned APC and the southern-aligned People’s Party. Once in office, the president found himself under intense pressure to reward northern voters with jobs in the civil service and lucrative state-run companies. Now that he has replaced many southern staff appointed by the People’s Party, calls for national reconciliation ring somewhat hollow.

Widespread poverty, rising food prices and a growing army of socially-alienated, jobless youth pose a constant problem which, left unaddressed, could prove disastrous in both social and security terms. Local elections on July 5 showed strong support for the APC and bolstered Sierra Leone’s democratic credentials, but some heated contests broke out into violent clashes. Faced with these problems it is no wonder Koroma has asked the people of Sierra Leone to wait three years before judging his administration.

To win his citizens’ trust Koroma needs to deliver basic services and move quickly to ensure reliable water and electricity supplies, repair roads and create more jobs for youth while pressing on with public sector reform and increasing government transparency and accountability. Despite the daunting nature of the tasks ahead, there is an opportunity to accomplish two things at once.

Koroma can boost service delivery while simultaneously smoothing potentially dangerous faultlines in society by moving away from donor-driven reconstruction and launching a nationally-owned project for which all Sierra Leoneans can feel responsibility. A sustained dialogue between state and population on government priorities is essential to build political consensus across the North-South divide. While implementing concrete projects on the ground, the government needs at the same time to nurture national cohesion.

At the same time, foreign donors still have an important role to play. The United Kingdom in particular, for a long time Sierra Leone’s most reliable prop, should not desert her former colony now.

Still, bilateral partners, who usually prefer to support poverty reduction and institution-building at the technical level, may well be reluctant to fund the essentially political enterprise of national consensus-building. However, the United Nations’ Peacebuilding Commission, set up in 2005 to bridge the gap between post-conflict reconstruction and new development initiatives, is well placed to take the lead in ensuring the consolidation of the country’s political stability.

With the United Nations mission due to leave in September, the Peacebuilding Commission could take over as a key diplomatic broker between the government and its development partners and provide critical support for cross-regional and party consultations on the government peace-building strategy.

Sierra Leone has undoubtedly come a long way since fighting stopped six years ago, but not so far that the international community can just walk away. Given the necessary help from abroad, Sierra Leone’s government now has a real opportunity to reinvigorate the country’s reconstruction and at the same time boost political cohesion. It is up to President Koroma and his government to show the way.

Francois Grignon is Africa Program Director of the International Crisis Group

 
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