Children at Princess’ School, Freetown. Photo: Matt Badenoch.
For Sierra Leoneans all over the world, 6 January stirs up a painful shared memory each year: the anniversary of the start of the 1999 rebel invasion of capital city, Freetown, and the systematic atrocities carried out against the civilian population.
Described by human rights organizations as the most intensive and concentrated period of human rights violations during Sierra Leone’s civil war, over one million inhabitants were killed or maimed. Homes were burnt to the ground and factories, government buildings and historical landmarks destroyed. Rebels also targeted churches and mosques sheltering civilians.
It’s fourteen years now since Freetown burned. Today, I look around to see a country that has made tremendous progress in rebuilding itself from a post-war country to a democratic, developing nation.
In the international Doing Business 2012 report, Sierra Leone ranked among the leading global reformers; one of the top 30 countries to improve the ease of commerce. While this may bring other challenges, one way the widespread corruption which has previously hindered further growth has been tackled is by changing state institutions like the army, police force, the judiciary, and Anti-Corruption Commission so that they operate as independent professional bodies.
The agricultural sector is moving from subsistence farming to commercial crop growth. There are now small holders commercialization programmes and agricultural business centres across the country.
Health indicators have improved, with a crucial reduction in infant mortality as a result of a free health care initiative. From the north to the south, there are signs of widespread infrastructural development , not least of all, the largest road construction plan in the history of Sierra Leone. Freetown, once referred to as the ‘darkest city’ in the world, is finally enjoying a relative level of energy as the national power supply becomes better regulated.
But, most importantly, the recent peaceful election in November 2012 was a clear demonstration of citizens’ shared commitment to good governance, democracy and development. As President Ernest Bai Koroma put it in his acceptance speech: ‘Sierra Leoneans displayed maturity, patience and tolerance during the elections. These are enduring Sierra Leonean values, and we must continue to display them to sustain our peace.’
Despite fears of civil tension, the elections received worldwide acclaim for being peaceful, credible, free and fair with over 10,000 independent international and local election observers giving it a clean bill of health. On Twitter, BBC’s Mark Doyle stated publicly that: ‘after these well-run elections I promise never again to use the phrase “war-torn Sierra Leone”’
We still have a way to go and the UN Security Council has urged the international community to continue to provide coordinated and coherent support to Sierra Leone to meet its peace-building and national targets.
But on 2013’s 6 January anniversary, we can reflect on history while looking to the future. The war is over. Now is the time for development.