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An important asset

I recently got my hands on a briefing to UN Secretary General Ban-Ki moon that listed a number of reasons why Sierra Leone is an important asset to the United Nations. During the decade-long civil war, the UN launched one of its largest ever peacekeeping missions in the country, the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL). Between 2002 and 2004 there were over 20,000 peacekeepers in the country. The blue helmets have long gone but the UN and its many agencies continue to maintain a strong presence in the country. Is the UN right to pat itself on the back about its achievements in Sierra Leone?   

1. Is Sierra Leone an example of regional stability?
The UN feels that Sierra Leone has a major role to play in maintaining West African peace, especially with politically unstable neighbours like Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. The roots of regional crisis they feel are corruption, drug trafficking and transnational crime.  
Neither corruption nor drug problems have been weeded out of Sierra Leone. Recently Wikileaks exposed a series of cables authored by one-time Chargé d’affaires for the US Embassy in Freetown, Glenn Fedzer. These alleged that in 2008, at the time of a major cocaine bust, President Ernest Bai Koroma skewed the investigation to protect members of his government. At the same time, kudos to him for being part of the team of west African leaders urging Laurent Gbagbo to step down and end the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire.  

2. Is Sierra Leone an example of good post-conflict transitional justice?
The UN feels that that both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court for Sierra Leone were successful in addressing the atrocities committed during the war. There were landmark rulings on child soldiers and forced marriages and former Liberian leader Charles Taylor is currently standing trial in The Hague.
There’s no denying the successes of the Special Court. But there are ample criticisms, such as the fact that it was too expensive and contributed little to rebuilding the national justice system which had been left battered by the war. Even in its last days the court continues to absorb donor funds that many in the country argue could have been used for developmental purposes.

3. Is Sierra Leone an example for a new type of UN Peacebuilding Mission?

In 2008 the UN mission in Sierra Leone changed its name to the UN Peacebuilding Mission in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) and its mandate to peace and development. In an attempt at capacity building, about 45 per cent of the people who work there are local staff.
Although the mandate is to empower talented Sierra Leoneans, the general view is that the UN system has sucked dry the talent pool in the country, leaving government and the private sector short of qualified professionals. The presence of the UN and its agencies has also created artificial price bubbles deepening the divide between the lives of ordinary citizens and those of the expatriates.

4. Is Sierra Leone an example of democratic nation building?

Sierra Leone made the transition to democratic rule very quickly after the end of the civil war in 2002 and on the whole they’ve managed to stay peaceful. The UN touts it as a major success story because despite being one of the poorest countries in the world with about 70 per cent living below the poverty line, they’ve chosen democracy through two national elections.
2012 is going to be a crucial year with presidential, parliamentary and local elections coming up. This will be the first national polls without the presence of UN peacekeepers. There are mounting concerns that rising youth unemployment, party politics and the economic situation might destabilize the fragile peace. So the UN’s hurrahs may be a bit premature.

5. Does Sierra Leone set an example for independent media?
One of the UN’s proudest moments in 2009 was when the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Bill finally passed and the state-owned national broadcaster transitioned into the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation, an independent public service broadcaster. The UN continues to support it through the transition phase with an army of international consultants and funding and hopes that free and fair coverage of the 2012 elections will establish its authority.
It’s not time to celebrate yet. Political interference from the government continues and friction between the top management of the station and the governing board has stalled progress. Yes, they are drafting strict election guidelines and if they stick to them, that’s when the UN and everyone else can bring out the bubbly.

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