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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Africa > West Africa > Sierra Leone > Sierra Leone: Elections Bring Hope for a Former Failed State

Sierra Leone: Elections Bring Hope for a Former Failed State

Donald Steinberg, allAfrica.com  |   6 Aug 2007

It all seems almost too normal to be newsworthy. On August 11, Sierra Leone goes to the polls to choose a new president among three candidates, all pledging to reform government, create jobs, address health and education, and expand the economy.

For most countries, this would hardly merit outside attention. But Sierra Leone remains for many the ultimate symbol of the failed state, the classic case of a violent crisis arising from environmental degradation, crime, overpopulation, and ethnic divisions. What seems normal elsewhere is exceptional here.
 
When I visited Sierra Leone in 2001, it was indeed a country living in the shadows of ruthless men like rebel leader Foday Sankoh and former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who exploited massive poverty for their own selfish purposes, luring disaffected and unemployed youth into militias and forcing them to carry out brutal and inhuman acts.

Sankoh died in 2003 and Taylor stands before an international tribunal in The Hague. With the engagement of the United Nations through a massive peacekeeping and reconstruction mission, the British in rebuilding the national institutions including the police and army, and most of all, the courageous people of Sierra Leone themselves, the country has made significant progress since peace returned in 2002. Primary school enrolment and construction of health centers and roads have risen substantially. The economy grew by 7 per cent in each of the past two years, in part because foreign lenders forgave the $1.6 billion external debt in 2006. New programs have put some poor young people to work in public works projects.

But the conditions that Sankoh and Taylor exploited are still very much in evidence. Absolute levels of poverty and suffering in Sierra Leone remain staggering. The country ranks second to last among 177 countries in the UN Human Development Index. There are jobs for only one in five young people, and nearly seven in ten adults live in poverty. Infant and maternal mortality remain at unconscionable levels, and rural areas remain a backwater. Corruption runs rampant, creating opportunities for graft, illegal exploitation of diamonds, and bribes for basic government services.

The August 11 presidential and parliamentary elections are thus a pivotal decision point for Sierra Leone. The three top presidential candidates are all experienced politicians: Solomon Berewa, the sitting vice president and in many ways the de facto leader of Sierra Leone since 2002; Ernest Koroma, a mild-mannered former insurance executive who ran for president in 2002, and accepted the results when he lost; and Charles Margai, a fixture of political life in Sierra Leone for more than three decades, who left Mr. Berewa's party in 2005 to form his own party.

Whoever wins must have the legitimacy of having won peaceful, free and fair elections. With a less than a week to go, there are some disturbing signs. While Sierra Leone's police is today a much more disciplined and better equipped force than a few years ago, it will be tested in providing electoral security and peaceful crowd control. The domination of regional party politics and strong links between traditional chiefs and political parties continue to frustrate fundamental reform. Rivalry between the parties of Mr. Berewa and Mr. Margai, especially in the south and east where tensions are rising, is a potential flashpoint.

Urgent steps are required. All political parties must respect the Voluntary Code of Conduct, instruct officials and supporters to renounce violence, and deploy witnesses to voting stations. The National Electoral Commission, which has done a good job so far, must hire and train effective polling agents, handle the counting process that often is more contentious than actual elections, and address post-electoral complaints transparently, quickly, and fairly.

Then the hard part begins: turning the page on Sierra Leone's chapter as a failed state. Again, the challenges are monumental: strengthen national governance, including a judiciary that is neither independent nor credible; create jobs for young people and demobilized soldiers; end endemic corruption; open the repressive political system to legitimate avenues of expression; reform a military with a history of abuse and engagement in coups; and expand the role for women in political and economic life.
 
As for the international community, the UN Peacebuilding Commission is already assisting priority projects in some of these key areas, including youth employment and rebuilding the public administration. But the $35 million provided under the Peacebuilding Fund is woefully inadequate given the scale of the problems. The new government, civil society, and the international community must come together to provide much higher levels of investment.

The end of conflict in Sierra Leone has raised expectations among youth, ex-combatants, women, and other disempowered groups of a better future. By meeting those expectations, we can help ensure that a future Foday Sankoh or Charles Taylor will find a population able to resist his siren song.

Donald Steinberg is vice president for multilateral affairs at the International Crisis Group. He served as special assistant for African affairs to President Clinton and US Ambassador to Angola.

 
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