Sierra Leone: A Post-Conflict Success Story?

In June, a RUSI team will visit Sierra Leone to study the country as a model of successful peacebuilding. This will take place in light of recent elections and the conclusion of many military missions.  The following outlines what they hope to achieve. 

General consensus amongst international organisations concludes that Sierra Leone has made 'significant progress' since the end of its brutal civil war in 2002. The end of various peacekeeping missions in the country follows what many have viewed as successful presidential, parliamentary and local council elections in November 2012. President Ernest Bai Koroma recently revealed the 'Agenda for Prosperity', which reviews and seeks to build on the progress made by the 'Agenda for Change'. The perception of success means that international attention is now turning to other areas of the world yet it remains unclear what, eleven years on from the conflict, has been done to combat the deep rooted tensions that initially caused the conflict in Sierra Leone.

Peacebuilding is a long and complex process which involves all aspects of society. Top level political and economic reforms must be prioritised along with efforts geared towards strengthening civil society. Development programmes aimed at reforming the political body into a strong democratic system of governance would be wasted without it being seen as legitimate by the people; previous efforts to artificially introduce a democratic system without the culture or history to support it has a poor track record. This careful balance of empowerment and reform to create a more functional society means that success and failure in peacebuilding goes hand in hand.

The security sector is seen as one example of success in the peacebuilding process. On 31 March 2013, the International Military Training and Advisory Team (IMATT) ended their mission in Sierra Leone. The mission was aimed at reforming the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) after the civil war. It had been established in 2002 in the capital, Freetown, following the cessation of violence. IMATT's mandate was not only to provide basic training and specialised courses, but to also instil a professional military culture that sought to sever the close ties between military officers and politicians.

The role of IMATT was focused on training soldiers on the ground to embrace social responsibility within their work. This new, reformed army was to be a professional military body to protect public security and be accountable to the legally constituted civilian authorities. IMATT is now being phased out, and replaced by the International Security Advisory Team (ISAT) which has a new role to play, with a new civilian Foreign and Commonwealth Office Head taking over in May.

The UK took a lead in reforming the country's security sector after its military intervention in May 2000 and it has maintained a strong relationship with Sierra Leone since the end of its colonial rule in 1961. After assisting the United Nations in its peacekeeping and monitoring mission, the UK's influence in Sierra Leone has expanded through the efforts of various British government departments including the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The focus of each department has differed between short, medium and long term objectives.  

Tracking the Progress of Security Sector Reform

IMATT's mission has largely been accepted as a successful one by the British Government, other international bodies have acknowledged the mission for tackling rival warlord factions and bringing stability to West Africa. Now, the RSLAF have even been deployed to help stabilise other troubled regions such as Darfur, and were deployed in April to Somalia on a peacekeeping mission in conjunction with the UN and African Union.

The new ISAT has a broader remit covering the majority of the security sector including the police force, the Office of National Security, the National Fire Force, the Prisons Department, the Immigration Office, and the Joint Maritime Committee amongst others. ISAT will also work alongside DFID and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) on operations dedicated to the justice sector. The shift from a military training operation to a wider security role symbolises a new international perspective on Sierra Leone and also emphasises the growing feeling of success in its post-conflict state.

However, security sector reform was only one of many recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report (TRC-R), a multi-volume document that explored the causes, nature and consequences of the war in great detail. Other sections of society cannot boast of the same success. The RUSI research team will use some of the imperative recommendations put forward by the TRC-R as guidelines to determine whether the international community, NGOs and civil society organisations have made the deep rooted changes necessary to outlast their presence. The focus of the research team will be on civil society and projects aimed at rebuilding communities, in order to get a picture of life in Sierra Leone in 2013.  

More To Do To Achieve 'Positive' Peace

The recurrence of conflict after the signing of peace agreements has been a cause for concern in the region, which makes the perceived success of Sierra Leone post-conflict a model of achievement. In 2012 the World Bank named Sierra Leone one of the world's top reformers using its Doing Business index. GDP growth is expected to increase with iron ore mining but social indicators are still some of the worst in the world.

It is worth making a distinction between reform within existing structures that do not challenge existing power dynamics, and the building of new structures that are able to target the root causes of conflict. There is no doubt that on the national level Sierra Leone has made great progress since the conflict, this is evident in reports by the World Bank and DFID. But has this trickled down to Sierra Leoneans' everyday life, and has it strengthened civil society to be robust enough to continue positive change once international support is reduced?

The distinction between a 'negative' and 'positive' peace will be helpful here. Positive peace seeks to address the underlying causes of conflict on a structural level. Although Sierra Leone is enjoying growth in certain sectors, it is not trickling down to the majority of the population. Instead it is experiencing 'negative' peace, which only means the cessation of physical violence.

The country has not yet achieved the imperative recommendations of the TRC-R that would allow positive peace through long term structural change. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 60 per cent, poverty and inequality is widespread and the destabilising effects of organised crime and drug trafficking is a real concern. The 2010 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report listed West Africa as the key transit hub for cocaine being smuggled from Latin America to Europe with Sierra Leone being used for transhipment; this would undermine state institutions, foster corruption and create the possibility of an influx of arms. All of these factors contribute to the possibility of conflict re-emerging in the country.

The main concerns still haunting Sierra Leone are its levels of corruption, poverty, reliance on aid, unemployment and poor infrastructure. Donor aid accounts for approximately 19 per cent of Sierra Leone's Gross National Income (GNI), and even more towards its national budget, making aid-dependency a major problem. It is unlikely to meet any of the Millennium Development Goals before 2015. Transparency International's 2012 report measured the levels of perceived public sector corruption and ranked Sierra Leone 123 out of 176 countries and territories, an improvement from previous years but still a troubling figure. Moreover, the investment of the UN and its presence all around Sierra Leone has been so successful that it risks damaging the legitimacy of the actual government, with the former being more trusted to maintain stability. Once the international guarantees are removed, it is not clear whether civil society would be strong enough to bridge the gap between the people and their Government in order to prevent a recurrence in conflict.

The international reports reveal holes in the peacebuilding process where urgent reform is still needed. The distinction between positive and negative peace is important when looking at Sierra Leone, because the general opinion of it as a model of peacebuilding could be misleading in the long term, after international attention and aid moves on. These concerns must not be overlooked, otherwise we run the risk of reversing current progress due to inflated perceptions of success.


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