By Simon Roughneen in Freetown for ISN Security Watch
The civil war in Sierra Leone was one of the most violent conflicts anywhere in the late 20th century. A death toll of around 50,000 did not tell the full story of a conflict where much of the fighting was carried out at close quarters.
Rebels were funded by diamond exports and supported by Liberian warlord-later-president Charles Taylor - who is now standing trial in The Hague at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Machetes were used to lop off hands and arms as a deterrent against voting; child soldiers were forced to kill family members; women were abducted and raped; cannibalism was a war ritual among some combatants; and foreign mercenaries dotted the land.
Then-president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah declared the war officially over in 2002, after the British Army intervened in 2000 to end eight years of carnage in its former colony. At one stage, despite being only around the same size as Ireland, the country hosted the world's largest UN peacekeeping mission, with 18,000 blue berets in place.
Today, the country is at peace. A 2007 election saw a peaceful transfer of power from Kabbah's Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) to the party that was in power back when the war started - the All Peoples Congress (APC), led by Ernest Bai Koroma.
The president was in London recently, where he was joined by former UK prime minister Tony Blair in touting the resource-rich West African state as an investment location. Blair was made an honorary paramount chief by Freetown in acknowledgement of the UK's intervention, which was decisive in ending the war.
But Sierra Leone is more or less as poor and undeveloped as it was after the war ended. It ranks at the bottom, or near the bottom, of listings such as the UNDPs Human Development Report or Transparency International's corruption perception tables.
The current government claims some improvement in the latter - with some recent high-profile arrests of ranking officials accused of graft - and the boosting of a national Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC).
According to Abdul Kpakra-Massally, the current government deserves credit for "passing the new bill which gives more autonomy to the ACC." Abdul formerly worked at the Campaign for Good Governance, an NGO promoting greater government transparency and accountability. He told ISN Security Watch that the ACC was given greater prosecuting powers and now has a wider range of corruptible offences.
Corrupt patronage politics played a big part in the run-up to the civil war, with local chiefs and allies in the central government milking state resources and fuelling resentment among urbn youth and rural poor. These so-called "rarray boys" were fertile recruitment ground for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, whose blood diamond-funded war brought the group into temporary power during the 1990s, but left thousands of Sierra Leoneans maimed and homeless.
Chris Mahony is a lawyer currently taking a DPhil at Oxford University. He directed the design of a Sierra Leone witness protection program for the UN and is now writing a monograph on witness protection across Africa for the Institute for Security Studies. He says that Sierra Leone's corruption is a symptom of a patrimonial system honed under British rule, which enables powerful chiefs to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of ordinary people.
Same taxi, different driver?
While the new ACC has extensive powers, it is a moot point whether this system has been fully unravelled or transformed, despite post-war local government reforms.
John Benjamin leads the country's main opposition party, the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), which lost power in the 2007 elections and has a powerbase in the south of the country. He sent an open letter to Koroma - whose APC is popular in the north - as well as passing it to foreign diplomats and donor representatives. He accused the president of nepotism and failing to tackle corruption, a stinging rebuke given that Koroma campaigned on an anti-graft ticket in 2007.
Benjamin's letter is paralleled by a provocative piece of social commentary in the form of a popular song on local airwaves. "Yesterday Betteh Pass Tiday," or, "yesterday is better than today" to translate from the Krio patois spoken in Freetown, compares the performance in government of the previous SLPP government and the ruling APC, more or less saying that it was bad before, but is worse now.
One noticeable difference between Freetown now and six years ago is a more reliable electricity supply to the city. Welcome as this is, Benjamin's allegations question the "improper awarding of contracts" for the new power supply, and many other government procurements. He hints that his supporters are being shut out of economic opportunity by the government. If true, this could be a replication of the corrupt political economy that helped lay the conditions for war in years gone by.
As part of the post-war justice and reconciliation process which now has Taylor in jail, the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to get to the bottom of why Sierra Leone saw such a violent war. The TRC report is probably the definitive account of the war and its causes. It noted that corruption, marginalization and regional and ethnic divides were key factors that triggered fighting, and warned that unless these issues are addressed, the impoverished West African state could find itself in another bout of fighting.
That said, it seems unthinkable that the country could return to war, even if corruption and poverty persist.
Mahony, who wrote the recommendations on governance for the TRC, tells ISN Security Watch that due to the war's elemental violence, people abhor the thought of more, irrespective of the political stakes.
The country is reliant on donors - particularly the British - for around half of its annual budget. Donor fatigue could be fatal, and for now, the country is in hoc to donor whims and needs. Little wonder perhaps that the government is forging a growing economic and political relationship with China, which, like the UK, has doubtless noticed that Freetown has the third-largest (and one of the most under-used) natural harbors on earth, as well as untapped iron ore reserves.
The country faces two potent, albeit indirect, external threats.
Firstly, next-door Guinea is deeply unstable, with rumors of rebels training in the jungles. Shared ethnic ties, geographic proximity and a raft of unemployed former soldiers in Sierra Leone spells vulnerability.
Nearby Guinea-Bissau is slated as the world's first 'narco-state,' with South American drug traffickers using the country as a springboard for cocaine sent to Europe. Sierra Leone is thought to be a secondary location for this nexus.
But for now, domestic problems need urgent attention.
Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa Programme at London's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), says that the country was relatively stable, but that it would be premature to rule out a return to civil war.
Chitiyo told ISN Security Watch that, much like the pre-1991 years, "high unemployment and lack of vocational training for the youth - many of whom were former soldiers - are serious problems."