Freetown, Sierra Leone
At least the presidential and parliamentary elections on August 11th will be the first to be held without the help of international peacekeepers since the end of the civil war that lashed Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. That is one welcome sign of progress. And since a British military intervention ended the conflict the country’s 6m people no longer run the risk of sudden death at the hands of drugged-up child soldiers.
But, five years of peace and hundreds of millions of dollars of aid money later, the issues that gave rise to the war in the first place are still as much in evidence as ever. And the elections, unfortunately, are not expected to change that.
Unemployment is close to 80%, poverty is widespread and corruption endemic. Any reform and improvement in daily life remain painfully slow. There are 300,000 more children in primary school than during the war, a few more paved roads and some electricity, but seven out of ten people still live on less than a dollar a day. The country has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world.
Where reform has been successful it has been led by foreigners. Take the army. Ill-disciplined soldiers looking to get rich with “blood diamonds” contributed mightily to the mayhem of the civil war. But since 2002 the army has been re-trained by Britain, the former colonial power. The army has been shrinking, but as one officer notes, “Every soldier we chuck out of the army is one more man unemployed and on the streets.”
Now that President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is standing down after two forgettable five-year terms, it would be reasonable to expect an injection of new faces and energy into the country’s politics. But this will not be the case.
Seven parties are contesting the elections, but only three count: the ruling SLPP, its traditional opponent, the All People’s Congress, which ruled for 14 venal years under Siaka Stevens, and the new People’s Movement for Democratic Change. This split from the SLPP and competes for the same ethnic heartland among the Mende people of the south and east. Since it is run by Charles Margai, nephew of the first prime minister and son of its second, there is little danger of new brooms sweeping through Freetown’s shabby corridors of power.
The 69-year old presidential front-runner, Solomon Berewa, is the incumbent vice-president, renowned as a clever and cunning political operator. Some say he has been the real power behind the throne for years. He prefers to describe himself as a man with a proven track record. His critics say he is implicated in all of the current government’s failures and shortcomings. “The problem”, says one, “is a small clique running corrupt patronage networks while providing zero services and Berewa will simply embed those networks.”
Stark evidence of what can be done with the right leader in charge comes from across the border in Liberia where Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is in her second year as president. She has tackled poor governance head-on, firing corrupt officials and removing ghost workers from the payroll. By contrast Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption
Commission is now a lame duck, having had its $2m annual funding suspended by exasperated British donors unhappy with the lack of progress. The replacement last year of an energetic former civil servant by the president’s brother-in-law as head of the commission strengthened the perception that the government is not serious about tackling corruption. In fact, most agree, it is growing.
The argument goes that the terrible violence of the conflict is so recent and memories so raw that a return to war is unthinkable. But many people in Sierra Leone know only violence as a way to vent their frustration at a government that fails them time and again. With the arrival of peace this is no longer a failed state. It may, however, be a failing one.