Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone: Reform or relapse? - Conflict and governance reform


Brian Thomson A Chatham House Report


Sierra Leone is a success story of international intervention to put an end to a brutal civil war. Yet there is considerable disillusionment in many quarters at the lack of progress in tackling the issues that caused the war, such as corruption and the exclusion of many from access to resources and public services. This report describes the collaboration between the international community and the Sierra Leone government in building and reforming state institutions during the civil war and its aftermath. It assesses the progress made, draws conclusions about the achievements and suggests lessons for donors that may be applicable more widely.

It is over five years since the end of the civil war and, at this distance in time, it is easy to play down what has been achieved since the dark days of 1999 and 2000. That would be a mistake. The collaboration between the government and the international community successfully stabilized the security situation and put an end to widespread violence and fear. The government's presence has been re-established throughout the country. Many refugees and displaced people have returned and the economy has begun to recover. However, Sierra Leone remains stubbornly at the bottom of the UN Human Development Index and recent improvements may not be sustainable unless other dimensions of governance improve too. Reestablishing institutions carries with it the risk that old abuses will return.

The government has made good progress in reforming the armed forces and police. Another strength was the government's effective management of the economy as a whole. The diamond industry is much better regulated than during the chaos of the civil war period but it is far from fully transparent and the working conditions of alluvial miners remain a source of festering grievances. The government's attempts to tackle widespread corruption through the judicial process have made little impact. Better systems have been introduced to manage public money but implementation is at an early stage. Consequently, it is too soon to say that opportunities for corruption have been reduced on a sustainable basis.

Establishing the district councils was a major achievement. However, the rivalry with the chiefdoms means that it is far from clear that decentralization will succeed in promoting stronger citizen participation and better service delivery. Traditional rural elites remain very powerful. Further reform is needed, including reform of the chieftaincy.

The 2002 elections at the end of the war were judged a success, in spite of significant irregularities. However, the 2004 local government poll was problematic and this is a challenging background to the 2007 national elections. So far, little progress has been made in reforming the judicial system and civil service, or in developing credible checks on executive power through parliament, the media and civil society.

In general terms, progress was greater when reforms were supported by a coalition of interests which included both internal and external (donor) actors. Good examples are the security sector, police and local government reform. The government and donors also shared an interest in making the diamond industry respectable under the Kimberley process and safeguarding the flow of aid by tackling corruption and improving financial management. However, local commitment in those areas was tempered by resistance from vested interests and reform has not made much headway. Consequently, making institutions effective has proved much more difficult than setting them up.

Traditionally, the source of political power in Sierra Leone is in patronage networks and it seems that the old patterns are emerging again. This does not mean that good development outcomes are beyond reach or that violent conflict will return. However, further progress will depend on building appropriate coalitions of interests and taking opportunities for reform as they arise. The international community can be part of such coalitions but only if it is willing to make a long-term commitment and develop a thorough understanding of local needs and interests.