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Sierra Leone: The Election Opportunity
Sierra Leone: The Election Opportunity
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Report 129 / Africa

Sierra Leone: The Election Opportunity

Sierra Leone holds presidential and legislative elections in August 2007. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who won a landslide victory in 2002 at the end of the civil war, split the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) by anointing a successor, Vice-President Solomon Berewa.

Executive Summary

Sierra Leone holds presidential and legislative elections in August 2007. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who won a landslide victory in 2002 at the end of the civil war, split the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) by anointing a successor, Vice President Solomon Berewa. When Charles Margai formed the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), the break-up rejuvenated politics but also heightened tension in SLPP strongholds. The All People’s Congress (APC), which gained in 2004 local elections, may be able to exploit this division. Return to a constituency-based voting system for parliament has reinforced the leverage of traditional chiefs in national politics and produced potentially vicious competition. Sierra Leone is still a fragile state in which peace will not be consolidated until two things happen. The elections must be violence-free and fair for results to be respected. Then the new authorities must deal with sources of discontent such as corruption, chiefs’ abuse of power and youth unemployment, lest they threaten stability.

The completely new National Electoral Commission (NEC) has started well and broadly inspires confidence. It has completed voter registration and has one month after nominations close to produce and distribute ballot papers. The choice of 11 August, the height of the rainy season, as polling day will not make the task any easier. National and international observers have a critical responsibility but it is also essential that allegations of fraud or malpractice be adjudicated promptly and fairly.

An escalating spate of house burnings, which started in Pujehun District in January, indicated tension between the SLPP and the breakaway PMDC. No one has claimed responsibility or been convicted, a lack of clarity which is reminiscent of the war years and undermines confidence in the re-establishment of rule of law. Although the police seem to have calmed the situation, more accountability is essential if recourse to violence is to become less attractive.

All parties are vying for the youth vote. Reconstruction efforts have done little to address the marginalisation of young people, and the next government must find a new approach to boosting economic growth and increasing income-generating opportunities. A robust attack on economic mismanagement is needed to rescue Sierra Leone’s reputation as a poor place for investment, but each of the major presidential candidates is burdened by history. Vice President Berewa is fully implicated in the current system. Margai was part of the administration until 2005. Ernest Koroma of the APC has not held office himself but his party’s long-serving president, Siaka Stevens, was an autocrat who introduced a one-party state.

If the elections go smoothly and the new administration starts with a strong reform program, Sierra Leone can profit from remaining international goodwill, exemplified by the commitment of the UN Peacebuilding Commission as well as of the UK and other partners, to achieve its potential. If not, a return to conflict would again be a real possibility. In any event, the population’s tolerance of bad governance and lack of economic development is unlikely to last much longer.

Dakar/Brussels, 12 July 2007

Statement / Africa

Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators

The landmark guilty verdict today against former Liberian President Charles Ghankay Taylor is a warning to those most responsible for atrocity crimes that they can be held accountable.

A decade after the war in Sierra Leone, the Special Court’s ruling marks the first time that a former head of state has been found guilty of war-time atrocities by an internationally-backed court since the Nuremberg trials. The verdict is a fresh lesson to all those in power that they do not enjoy impunity and a sign of hope in Sierra Leone that those most responsible for the heinous crimes of the eleven-year civil war (1991-2002) are being brought to book. Nevertheless, Liberians are still waiting for Taylor and others to be tried for atrocities committed in the civil war in their country.

“The guilty verdict against Charles Taylor by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) is a watershed moment in the fight to hold high-level perpetrators accountable”, says Gilles Yabi, Crisis Group’s West Africa Project Director. “It is also a momentous day for the victims’ families, who have waited patiently for this ruling since the court began its work”.

The verdict has been a long time coming. Taylor was indicted in March 2003 on multiple counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international law. He was accused of helping to plan, order and encourage acts including murder, terrorising civilians, mutilation, rape, sexual slavery and recruiting child soldiers. The charges stemmed from his support for Sierra Leone rebel groups as commander of the National Patriotic Front for Liberia from 1989 and after becoming president in 1997.

Under the peace agreement that ended Liberia’s civil war in 2003, Taylor resigned as president. He was granted exile in Nigeria but extradited in March 2006 to Freetown, at the request of Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and after he violated the terms of his exile by meddling in Liberian politics. Owing to regional security concerns, his trial before the SCSL – a court set up jointly by the government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations – was held in The Hague.

This verdict ends the work of the court, which also convicted eight other individuals. Its mandate was to prosecute only those most responsible for the crimes within its jurisdiction. That brief was heavily criticised because it meant that many lesser perpetrators would go free, particularly given the weaknesses in Sierra Leone’s justice system. While the judgment sends a strong message that heads of state can be prosecuted, many Liberians may feel short-changed. Despite the long and costly work of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended prosecutions for the main perpetrators of atrocities during the Liberian civil war, impunity still prevails and remains an obstacle to national reconciliation.

“While this is a significant day for Sierra Leone, many in Liberia will have mixed feelings”, says Comfort Ero, Crisis Group’s Africa Program Director. “Taylor and other Liberians have yet to be held to account for crimes committed in Liberia’s civil war. Several suspects continue to serve in public office”.

Dakar/Nairobi/Brussels