Reasons for optimism and the recovery from Civil War in Sierra Leone

Due to the tragic Ebola outbreak in Western Africa Sierra Leone has found itself in International headlines for the first time since the end of its eleven year civil war in 2002. The Ebola outbreak of recent months has reignited international interest in the small West African country with reports focusing on the impact of the outbreak, with the death toll in the region standing at over 1000 people at the time of writing. Hopefully the Ebola outbreak can be contained before it truly reaches disastrous levels. Sierra Leone has made significant strides since the end of their civil war in 2002 that this article will explore, it remains to be seen how the Ebola epidemic will affect this progress.

Prior to the recent upswing in interest as with many African nations no news had been relatively good news, as observers of international news we are used to only seeing Africa in times of strife. Progress has been slow for the West African country which still ranks as one of the worlds poorest, and one must hope that such a serious outbreak of a fatal disease will not bring to the surface whatever ethnic tensions may still bubble in the country. This being said we must cautiously consider Sierra Leone one of Africas recent success stories.

The final acts of the special tribunal organized to pursue the worst of the war criminals acting during the civil war came to pass in 2013. During it’s proceedings the court became the first to convict a head of state of war crimes since the Nuremburg trials when Charles Taylor former president of Liberia was convicted. In addition the Sierra Leone tribunal was the first to achieve convictions for the use of child soldiers, and for forced marriages. Despite this there was criticism for the court from international observers for not pursuing all those responsible for atrocities. Additionally there was a curious response from the people of Sierra Leone to the conviction of Charles Taylor, who was responsible for some of the most truly heinous actions of the civil war. During the trial a popular attitude of ‘forgive and forget’ was adopted leading to a muted response to the conviction of one of the most vicious actors of the whole civil war. More than anything this probably indicates the desperation with which people want to move on from the civil war. Indeed Sierra Leone has done an impressive job of removing violence from a society so accustomed to it. Private weapons have been banned, a law made possible by the post civil war UN peacekeeping force who collected and destroyed a huge amount of privately owned guns. Now fewer than a hundred people out of a population of seven million are killed each year, that figure is a fifth of the rate of New York City. Sierra Leone has progressed from a country whose peace not long ago was maintained by blue helmeted UN peacekeepers, to a country that now provides the soldiers to be peacekeepers deployed all around the continent.

Surrounded by countries suffering from similar levels of poverty and deprivation, in which since 2002 when the Sierra Leone civil war ended have experienced their own civil wars, ethnic tensions, and the spectre of rising militant Islamism. Despite this Sierra Leone has been at relative peace, with a government that has shown a willingness to work with the International community to improve the lives of their citizens.

It is this cooperation with the International community, especially with the UN that has been of such benefit to Sierra Leone in their recovery from civil war. In addition the transparency of UN reporting makes it a simple task to gauge the progress the country has made post civil war. Sierra Leone has been an active participant in the UN’s annual Human Development Report (HDR), and is one of the first countries to willingly provide a ‘fragility assessment’ which much like the HDR showed a country that has made significant progress, but still faces substantial challenges to it’s future growth.

The HDR tells us that Sierra Leone ranks 183 out 187 with a Human Development Index (HDI) score of 0.374 qualifying them in the category of low Human development in the UN’s Human development index, this score was a .006 jump from their score the previous year moving them up one place in the UN’s rankings. Equally Sierra Leone performs poorly in other areas of quality of life, with the lowest life expectancy at birth, standing at 45.6, and a mean years of schooling of 2.9, however Sierra Leone’s Gross National Income per capita is 1,815, comfortably higher than their regional counterparts. Notably in the HDI rankings Sierra Leone is surrounded by regional neighbours many of whom they ranked higher, including Chad, CAR, DRC, and Niger. Despite this the report notes that 46.4% of the population live in severe poverty. That figure is down from 10% from 2008. Although an unacceptably large percentage, once again when compared with their regional counterparts Sierra Leone in fact appears relatively well-off. Niger standing at 73.5%, CAR at 48.5%, Burundi at 48.2%, Burkina Faso at 63.8% pp. 182-183 Additionally over 50% of the population below the poverty line (under $1.25 a day). However this is not as serious as regional counterparts Burundi and DRC who are closer to 80% and is in fact better than regional leader Nigeria who have 67.98% of their population living on under $1.25 a day. p. 180-181

Perhaps more tellingly the UN this year released a HDR trending report charting countries progress since it’s inception in 1980. Obviously Sierra Leone’s score suffered during the 90s due to Civil war, however their percentage increase from 2000-2010 standing at an improvement of 1.79 puts them in lofty territory in terms of progression in the HDI, outstripping the scores of more commonly lauded African states such as Ghana (1.26), Kenya (1.25), Cameroon (1.18), Senegal (1.25), Uganda (1.63), Botswana (1.54), in addition to international behemoths China (1.52), and India (1.49). p. 166

As these reports demonstrate Sierra Leone has made great strides in their development, however it must be acknowledged that they have made great progress from a very low starting point. A position of 183rd of 187 countries in the HDI is hardly a glowing review and proves that any praise and optimism must be tempered by an acknowledgement of the countries fragility. Were the twin woes of corruption and sectarianism that blight the entire region to take hold all the progress that has been made could unravel very quickly.

However, early sign are promising that largely these vices are being resisted. In 2012 the country participated in their first free and open elections since the end of the civil war, complete with UN oversight and organization. The election was won by Ernest Bai Koroma, garnering 58.7% of the vote thus passing the required percentage of 55 to claim a majority victory. Most notably the elections passed without significant incident, there were scattered reports of minor unrest, however there was no sign of significant violence or intimidation. Even more surprisingly despite Koroma gaining only 3.7% over the required percentage for outright victory his opposition conceded defeat with a minimum of fuss, there were muted claims of electoral fraud but these claims garnered little attention within the country, or from outside observers. Perhaps these claims went unheeded because of the excitingly high voter turnout, with a gaudy 87.3% of eligible voters casting a ballot. When compared with voter turnout in noted democracies such as the United Kingdom, 65.1% in the 2010 general election, and 58.2% in the United States presidential election of 2012 the election in Sierra Leone becomes even more impressive. This statistic perhaps beyond all others is a cause for optimism. The greatest weakness of many elections in states that ultimately fail to maintain democracy is that the initial elections were unrepresentative, either due to repression or fraud. That claim cannot be made of the elections in Sierra Leone, therefore we can realistically hope that a representative government, with a populous that has granted them legitimacy can indeed maintain peace and democracy were so many other states have failed.

Any person with a even a passing interest in International affairs will be aware however that one election does not make a democracy. The continent is stained by veiled democracies, such as in Zimbabwe, and outright dictatorships, as is the case in Chad where Idriss Deby amd his government suppress the opposition and the press. Indeed it was the APC party the, the party of Koroma who turned Sierra Leone into a one party state in 1978, whether these autocratic sentiments remain within the party remains to be seen, but with almost two years lapsed since the election signs are promising that Sierra Leone will remain a democratic state in the future.

There seems to be a concerted effort to make this fledgling government truly representative. The Sierra Leone civil war was a deeply ethnic conflict, and as one would expect those ethnic divides still exist as do many of the original tensions. As in many of the continents countries this makes Sierra Leone exceptionally difficult to govern. President Koroma’s APC party is traditionally supported by the Temne and Limba people of northern Sierra Leone whilst the opposition, the Sierra Leone People’s Party draws it’s support from the Mende in the South and East of the country. In what must be seen as both a calculated political tactic, and a promising sign of greater integration Koroma’s government draws several of it’s cabinet members, including the vice-president Samuel Sam Sumana from the diamond rich East of the country. Whilst the east is the source of much of Sierra Leone’s riches it is also the most ethnically diverse region of the country, in addition the east suffered from the most violent fighting of the civil war. In this case it might be worthwhile to look past the cold political logic that has led to a more representative government, and simply acknowledge that whatever the reasoning the more of the country feels represented by their government the more likely it is that Sierra Leone can look forward to a democratic future.

Perhaps the greatest reason for optimism for Sierra Leone lies in their most unique and interesting characteristic, religious tolerance and freedom. Sierra Leone provides a fascinating insight into how easily religious tolerance can be achieved, but sadly how useless it can be in preventing violence. In fact not only is religious tolerance a universal fact in Sierra Leone, even more extraordinarily tolerance goes as far as including religious pluralism. Religious freedom and tolerance is a lynchpin of the country’s constitution. The two main religious groups of the country, Christians and Muslims, enjoy a cordial relationship, Christians are free to pray in Mosques alongside Muslims just as Muslims are free to pray in church alongside Christians. If this wasn’t unique enough Sierra Leoneans will often identify themselves as both Christian and Muslims, or ChrisMus, regularly visiting a church and a mosque to worship. Moreover religious conversion and mixed marriages between Christians and Muslims are common and free from prejudice. In Sierra Leone Christians and Muslims have chosen to focus on their similarities rather than allow their differences to tear the two communities apart. This tolerance transcends class and level of education, and is another reason to have faith in the APC government. President Bai Koroma a Christian was elected with a 70% Muslim electorate, with a vice-president in Sam Sumana who is a devout Muslim. This climate of religious tolerance is even more extraordinary given where Sierra Leone lies both geographically and religiously. In a part of the world where in Mali and the Central African Republic Christians and Muslims have been killing each other indiscriminantly, and in Nigeria and Mali radical Islamists have been flourishing it is even more surprising that a country seemingly so ripe for religious conflict has stayed completely above the fray. In a UN report on Sierra Leone rebuilding from 2013 it was religious tolerance that the writer chose to focus on as a reason to be optimistic about the future of the country. The report rightly noted that religious communities in the country can and should take a leading role in helping to create a strong stable nation where a legacy of violence can become little more than a cautionary tale for younger generations.

Sierra Leone through it’s government and religious communities has demonstrated it has the skills to be an open, tolerant and inclusive society. If Sierra Leone can avoid the twin scourges of sectarianism and corruption there is every reason to be optimistic that the small West African nation can emerge as a regional force for peace and progress, and a hopefully more cooperative Africa.

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Categories: Africa

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