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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Sierra Leone > Sierra Leone's Convalescence

Sierra Leone's Convalescence

Donald Steinberg, International Herald Tribune  |   8 Aug 2008

In 1994, while serving as President Bill Clinton's senior adviser for Africa, I received a note from him about Robert Kaplan's article, "The Coming Anarchy." That article argued that Sierra Leone, like much of the developing world, was doomed to a future of chaos and poverty due to largely inescapable factors like population pressures, urbanization, and scarcities of food and water.

Clinton's note read, "Is this true?" Tragically, the next eight years seemed to confirm the doomsday scenario, as Sierra Leone descended further into a civil war whose brutality was legendary, with the massive use of alienated youth as child soldiers, pillaging of the country's diamond and timber resources by regional warlords, including Liberia's Charles Taylor, and spill-over of refugees and instability throughout West Africa.

But the prediction was, in the longer run, incomplete. Phoenix-like, a new nation is emerging since the signature of a peace agreement in 2002. Indeed, many actions now being taken by Sierra Leone's leadership - backed by the international community - are a blueprint for how a country rebuilds after conflict.

Free elections took place last September, and the governing party accepted defeat and transferred power to the opposition under Ernest Bai Koroma. The nation's security forces, long seen as a source of corruption and human rights abuse, are slowly being transformed into a professional force. The international community, often criticized for a cut-and-run attitude once the guns go silent, has committed to a partnership for the long-run, including the decision to include Sierra Leone as a priority country under the new UN Peacebuilding Commission. 

Still, the challenge ahead remains daunting. Most of the population lives in abject poverty, infant mortality is among the worst in the world, and youth unemployment rests at some 80 percent. Corruption is so widespread that more than half of the government officials interviewed freely admitted that they had engaged in fraudulent practices. The country's political system remains fractured along regional lines, with the government drawing most of its support from the north and the opposition from the south.

The new president exacerbated these rivalries by dismissing numerous officials from the south and replacing them with his northern supporters. Most people still view government not as a source of social services and justice, but as responsive only to the powerful or those of the right ethnic group, and rapacious toward all the rest. And now comes the shock of rising energy prices and the devastating impact of the global food shortage, which doubled the local price of commodities like rice in the last half of 2007 alone.

Koroma and his team have sought to fulfill his promise to run government "like a business concern." In his first year in office, he has initiated a long-delayed civil service reform and required ministers to sign performance contracts whose targets they must meet to keep their jobs. He has reminded civil servants that they must convince a skeptical population that the government is responding to their priorities.

A symbol of Koroma's success has been his ability to turn the lights back on in Freetown. The failure of his predecessor to ensure reliable electricity there was a source of great public anger. Foreign donors agreed to support this project, allowing Koroma to establish his own priorities in response to popular demands.

Coupled with a commitment to complete the long-delayed Bumbuna hydroelectric project, this has created the expectation that the government will soon be able to supply every province with electricity.

But will the international donors stay the course, given estimates that the action is costing Sierra Leone's government some $5 million per month that it doesn't have, and will the local power users be prepared to pay their energy bills? If so, this popular step can be a model for supplying other needed social services, including water. If not, the crushing debt and unmet popular expectations are a prescription for a "back to the future" scenario.

Responding to Clinton 14 years ago, I quoted Ebenezer Scrooge's reaction when shown his pitiful future by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come: "Men's courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change." So, too, Sierra Leone under Koroma and supported by the international community has the opportunity to depart from its past to forestall Kaplan's vision of inevitable doom.

Donald Steinberg, who served as National Security Council senior director for African affairs in the 1990s, is deputy president of the International Crisis Group.

 
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