Sierra Leone: A New Era of Reform?
Sierra Leone: A New Era of Reform?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Taylor Verdict a Warning to War Crimes Perpetrators
Report 143 / Africa

Sierra Leone: A New Era of Reform?

Sierra Leone has made much progress since the civil war ended in 2002, but a number of social and economic time bombs must still be defused if an enduring peace is to be built. The 2007 elections, in which Ernest Bai Koroma won the presidency and his All People’s Congress (APC) wrested the parliament from the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), restored legitimacy to the electoral process.

Sierra Leone has made much progress since the civil war ended in 2002, but a number of social and economic time bombs must still be defused if an enduring peace is to be built. The 2007 elections, in which Ernest Bai Koroma won the presidency and his All People’s Congress (APC) wrested the parliament from the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), restored legitimacy to the electoral process. Koroma’s reform agenda promises much but must overcome big challenges. The majority of the population lives in abject poverty, and an ever-growing army of unemployed, socially alienated youth is a perennial threat to security. Patronage networks and identity politics, though evolving, continue to constrain government decisions. The new government faces a fundamental political challenge in building public confidence in its agenda, while donor support to post-war reconstruction is gradually scaled down. It needs to do more than call for “attitudinal change” and a renewed “social contract” if it is to improve accountability and combat corruption. The UN Peacebuilding Commission can make a major contribution.

Voting patterns in the recent elections show that the APC’s reform message was well received in urban areas, where both increasing individualism and interest in voluntary association are beginning to replace the old system of extended families and elite patronage networks. At the same time, continued improvements in security and struggles for access to development resources have also resulted in a resurgence of identity politics. This is visible in the return of the old divide between the northern-aligned APC and southern-aligned SLPP, as well as at a sub-regional level, in the concentration of electoral support for the breakaway People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) party in the country’s second largest city, Bo, and southern coastal areas.

The new president has exacerbated regional political rivalries by dismissing numerous functionaries appointed by the previous administration and replacing them with APC-supporting northerners. Returnees from the sizeable overseas diaspora, a major source of election campaign money, have contributed to the pressure on him to reward party faithful with government jobs. Koroma nevertheless has sought to fulfil his promise to run government “like a business concern”. He has streamlined the ministerial system, put civil service reform back on the political agenda and required ministers to sign performance contracts whose targets they must meet to keep their jobs.

The president appears to be playing out a long-term strategy of reform in introducing new political discipline and accountability to the old system of patronage politics. His government’s success in securing donor support for emergency electricity supplies for Freetown, the capital, was a political triumph, enabling him to speak with authority about the need for a new “social contract” in which the government supplies services and responsible citizens pay for them. However, rising food prices highlight the government’s limited room for manoeuvre, and the Presidential Transition Team, underscored the continuing dependency on donors.

That dependency is part of the reason for the government’s emphasis on “attitudinal change”, as well as the uncertainty over the future of the Anti-Corruption Commission, which has been donor-funded. The attention the Koroma team is giving to communications strategy shows it is aware of the difficulties of moving to national ownership of the development process, but it will take more than skilful news management to satisfy popular demand for an escape from poverty. Donor-supported programs to provide young people with educational and employment opportunities may only have provided a temporary breathing space before the crisis of youth alienation reasserts itself. Recent research in both rural and urban areas indicates that the country’s social fabric is stronger than had been thought, but a loss of faith in the post-war development process could still be catastrophic.

Building a lasting post-war political settlement requires a genuinely national project. One possibility is formulation of a fully consultative National Development Plan to replace the recently expired Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP). Such a plan needs to enhance interaction between government and citizens and form the basis upon which future governments are held politically to account for meeting development targets.

Even in an aid-dependent country like Sierra Leone, donors’ capacity to influence the government on politically sensitive matters has proven to be very limited. Some may be reluctant to support a nation-building project that goes beyond the technical aspects of poverty reduction and institutional capacity building. However, the new UN Peacebuilding Commission is well placed to mediate the transition from donor-driven post-war reconstruction to democracy-driven national development.

Dakar/Brussels, 31 July 2008

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”.


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